Friday, May 15, 2009

Reads like Teen Spirit

(Another extract from the revised PhD intro)

Before moving to consider the fourth dominant framework through which Grunge fiction has been received [Grunge as focussed on the theme of abjection], it is worth dwelling on the role that Grunge as musical culture plays in Syson’s influential essay. A shared musical and literary boundary is one that is inscribed into the term Grunge. Yet it rare for the both sides of the boundary to be given a concomitant and serious analysis. Grunge music is often positioned in essays on Grunge fiction as the truly teenage and commodified world against which ‘adult’ cultural forms are contrasted and Grunge is defined as a marketing exercise. To take Grunge music seriously seems, somehow, unthinkable; a boundary not to be crossed. As an initial crossing, Syson’s essay is a good place to start, not least because Nirvana’s “Smells like Teen Spirit” forms the basis of his title.

Syson despatches Grunge as a cultural term – shared by both literary and musical culture – by fixing its etymology to the “sentimental teen spirit” that Nirvana express (21). He has no interest in considering Grunge as a term for a cultural movement that encompasses both musical and literary form for reasons to do with the teenage-ness of Grunge music and the fundamental incommensurability of pop/rock musical and literary form:

At the 1995 Melbourne writers’ festival, Linda Jaivin made a point in the session on Grunge that might have laid the label to rest. She asked, “But what is Grunge in the literary context?” 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. (21)

On the surface the incommensurability of Grunge musical and literary form is prefigured into the analogy that Syson chooses to underline his point. But this apparent disjunction is based on a romantic discourse of musical form in which all rock music is understood as expressive of subjective authenticity: whether it be teenage or African-American alienation and rebellion. The distinction Syson is unable to voice is that between Fordist and post-Fordist electric guitar solos; between the guitar solos that made sense during the period Zygmunt Bauman characterises as heavy capitalism and solid modernity – Fordism, and that of light capitalism and liquid modernity – post-Fordism. Indeed, one way to characterise the electric guitar solo heard in Nirvana’s “Smells like Teen Spirit” is to hear it as both imitative of the vocal melody – and thereby expressively realist, because imitating the lyrical song – and to hear it as post-Fordist, because while it is sonically redolent of overdriven Chicago Blues solos, and hence alluding to rock’s Fordist period, it is also treated with chorus and phase-shifting effects, which take the solid and heavy Fordist timbres and bent blues notes and liquefy and lighten them. Difficult to hear is the sustained final note of the guitar solo which is held through the beginning of the final verse. This last section of the guitar solo morphs from its imitation of the vocal melody into an electronic pulse that becomes spectral and ethereal. In one guitar solo Kurt Cobain offers a rich aural text, moving from Fordist realism into an uncertain and haunted post-Fordist timbre and sonics. Read and heard together with the musical video and the lyrics, “Smells like Teen Spirit” is a complex work of art that combines situationist politics in its video and a form of punk-Adorno-esque negation in its lyric and vocal grain. Nirvana are both expressing teen spirit and attempting to get outside it, to negate it and turn its commodified conditions from a spectacle into a situation.

The hermeneutics of Grunge musical culture and form is a curious aspect in the reception of Grunge fiction. Syson’s disavowal of Grunge as a musical form signifying anything except sentimental teen spirit appears to be based on a misreading of Nirvana’s signature song, which he parodies in his essay’s title. His suggestive claim that Australian Grunge fiction is a literary response to the demolition of structures of feelings in Australian political culture, closes its ears to similar demolitions of structures of feeling being responded to in American musical culture. Is Grunge fiction also post-Fordist and practising negation to attempt to move outside a teen spirit that is corrupt, no longer a source of radicalism or resistance? What social and political forms are the equivalent of Fordism in Australia? If Fordism was an historic compromise between male manufacturing wage earners and the owners of industries like Ford, then how did the historic compromises function in Australia? What was happening to these compromises, or settlements, in the period when Grunge fiction took shape?

1 comment:

Al Carragher said...

I miss Nirvana. Their beautiful music always lives.