Agnès Gayraud has a PhD in philosophy, discipline she teaches at the Villa Arson, a national art school in Nice. She practises as a musician under the name La Féline. Her latest album, Vie Future, came out in October 2019. Her impressive new book, entitled Dialectique de la Pop, was published a year ago by La Découverte, recently translated in English under the title Dialectic of Pop by Urbanomic. This book is a philosophical attempt to think popular music as an art form, thus disputing Theodor W. Adorno’s dogma of musical modernity, which reserves the privilege of authenticity for highbrow music. Agnès Gayraud argues that recorded popular music, deemed light-weight, inauthentic and inconsequential, is actually a major musical art of the last century, an art form that reaches far beyond the simple status of the consumer object.
The “hater” or “troll” is a well known figure on the social network: a hostile commentator, who generally disputes all issues, with a certain dose of bad faith and assumed viciousness, in order to demonstrate the invalidity of what others extol. Adorno’s hostile attacks on light popular music come close to this model of a despiser. But, to the extent that, as he declared in 1968 on television, “all light popular music is bad, bad with no exception,” his position becomes hyperbolic, totalitarian.
Critical Theory is a school of thought that appeared in the 30s in Germany, founded in Frankfurt by Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, with the project of constructing a global critique of industrialized society, using Marxist, Freudian and Nietzschian tools. It was pioneer in critical and philosophical research on the effects of industrialization of culture in the 20th century: see the works of Walter Benjamin on the political effects of photography and cinema or those of Adorno on radio and television, and, with Horkheimer, on cultural industry in general.
Hegelian dialectics are reconciliating: the process is negative, but they always suppose exceeding this in speculative reconciliation. Negative or critical dialectics retain the Hegelian requirement of the negative, but remain in this form of contradiction. Pop musical art deeply harbours this inclination towards reconciliation, even though its entire history is a permanent confrontation with the negative (inauthenticity, rootlessness, impersonality, false universality, appropriation, etc.)
Julien Bécourt: I’d like to begin by an anecdote: the other day, I saw a tall young black guy with an improbable look step into the metro with a Bluetooth speaker strapped around his waist. And there he was dancing to Hey Moon by Molly Nilsson and John Maus, as if it were uptempo techno! The contrast between the packed metro, this improbable dancer and the intimate, melancholic pop song at top volume was really strange. The kind of oxymora that really seemed to crystallize today’s Zeitgeist.
Agnès Gayraud: The scene you’re describing would almost be more credible in the 80s, at a time when “alterno” and “antifa” movements brought more social groups together. Today I feel that segregation continues to exist between whites and non-whites. Even if a lot of whites listen to non-white music, it’s still more rare to see black people grooving to music by John Maus in the métro. In Parisian indie concerts – even the most activist ones I really respect – it’s rare for the public to be mixed (as well as being a question of musical genres: folk, alternative pop and even rock remain very white). As children and teenagers from the 90s, we were cradled by the rather empty-minded spirit of Live Aids, along with an abstract form of antiracism. Now we have to be able to share elements of culture without indefinitely replaying a dominant posture; de-colonial studies are there to remind us of that (and also to show us the bottomless pit of these problems). But in practice, we still have to confront the illusions of diversity we continue to live with. That being said, I’m not a sociologist, I’m speaking here as an amateur of music and as a “practitioner.”
JB: It wasn’t so much about emphasizing the distinction between black and white as it was about the cognitive dissonance linked to these “signs” grafted one onto the other. Dancing in the metro to such undanceable music is quite a feat… If I’m saying this, it’s also because John Maus is, like you, a philosopher and a musician who reflects on his practice all at once. Do you adhere to his conception of pop that strives to reach beyond kitsch to do a better job on “subjectively accomplishing objectivity,” as you say in your book?
AG: The contradictions often formulated by John Maus with (and about) R. Stevie Moore, or his own music, are on another level. It’s an approach I’m sensitive to, because it does indeed dialectize the utopic and dystopic elements of pop. It does so in quite a postmodern way, by seeing the possibility of reconquering the first degree through a sort of varnish, or a veil of irony, as if melancholy couldn’t show up as it is, because we don’t believe in it anymore. If you ask me the question as an artist, I really don’t feel, as much as John Maus does, the need to blur my attachment to melodies under layers of sound destined to make them hypnagogic and less immediate. I’m less bothered than he is by emotion in music, less worried about demonstrating my capacity of reflexivity through the pop form of my songs. I always find that the most difficult thing is to make a great song that turns people on in one way or another. Full stop. But, of course, we’re clearly touching this type of emotion when it becomes almost spectral in a song like “And Heaven Turned to Her Weeping” for example. It’s always good to feel that the artist hasn’t been completely domesticated by the theorician – I should talk about that with John Maus.
JB: It seems to me that John Maus goes beyond postmodern irony; his postulate is sincerity through surplus, overcoming kitsch by its exacerbation. His songs seek to attain a form of truth and immediate emotion. “Accelerationism” applied to pop, if you like! In your essay, Theodor Adorno occupies the central place, or at least he triggers your dialectics. You can feel that you wanted to fight your “hyperbolic hater” as you call him, while continuing to admire him. How did the idea come about of confronting pop music and Adorno’s very peremptory aesthetic conceptions? Did you want to start by weaving a bond between your philosophic career and your aesthetic preoccupations as an artist?
AG: I started reading Adorno in 2004; I wanted to dive into a difficult text on 20th century metaphysics that hadn’t been written by Martin Heidegger. The equation inevitably led to Adorno’s Negative Dialectics. Music had already been in my life for a long time (I’m self-taught, and have been writing songs since I was a child). Once I was seriously into philosophy, I spent several years living these two loves as a heartrending experience. Especially because I was making pop music, of course, and in academic circles, namely in philosophy, people are still rather impervious to the subject. Paradoxically, Adorno reflects this distain, or misunderstanding, which lingers on, but with his charm of expressing his point to its conclusion, in a form of frightened panic. So panicked indeed that it becomes curious, meaning that he took a real interest in these objects. And that’s extremely rare. Yes, I did want to weave the two subjects together, without betraying the inner tension between them. Bringing these two passions together is necessary for my psychic survival!
JB: Cultural Studies have been strongly concerned with restoring a whole segment of different types of popular music, which were long denigrated by the social sciences. Could you identify a lineage in your work of these postmodernist authors?
AG: Of course. What is remarkable is that the first works of Stuart Hall, the founding figure of these Cultural Studies, proved to be sorts of antidotes to the Critical Theory: it was all about reflecting on objects in popular culture without surrendering to typically Adornian judgements of value or finishing with the Germanic overview on all things concerning culture in its democratically shared sense. But when one reads The Uses of Literacy by Richard Hoggart, one comes across a bio-descriptive approach to aspects in the life of the working classes. In Dialectic of Pop, I try to single out another meaning in popular issues, not just a popular culture, but also the aesthetics of popular issues. Which brings me back to Adornian standards. The challenge from then on depended on not reproducing Adorno’s aesthetic tribunal. Rethinking the aesthetic challenges inherent to musical art (without crushing them under sociological and cultural determinations), while steering away from judgements of value that aesthetic constructions always threaten to produce. In terms of data and analysis of detail, on pop, these Cultural Studies remain the most fertile disciplinary approach. The works of Simon Frith and Dick Hebdige, particularly on rock, are essential. But the philosophical gesture, meaning the reflection on the conditions of enunciation of the judgement of these works, on the aesthetic or meta-aesthetic (anthropological, moral…) challenges that allow us to artistically and aesthetically apprehend works of recorded popular music, always seemed to be missing when I read them. They are indeed wells of science on the subject. But I thought it would be useful to reveal the theoretic framework of this science, without being overbearing, and that was the problem.
JB: You also teach at the art school in Nice, the Villa Arson. What aspect, either theoretic or aesthetic, do you mainly work on? Is your course of action the same as in your written work?
AG: It’s still very recent for me, and I admit that I’m still inventing and looking for this course of action. In Dialectic of Pop, I present myself as someone who has been trained in academic philosophy, the history of philosophy and pop objects: and so we talk about metaphysics and science fiction, ontology and graphic novels, the Anthropocene Era and disaster movies. That’s also a characteristic of Adornian Critical Theory: looking into different cultural configurations and detecting sedimentations of thought in them. One class I’ll be giving this year is about the meaning of “popular” and its status in contemporary art, beyond pop art, which I see as a false friend, like false – or at least biased – popular characteristics in the history of painting.
JB: You seem to insinuate that recorded music is living its last moments and that, in the future, the experience of concerts will ultimately take over listening to recordings. Do you think that we are on the verge of reconnecting with the oral, vernacular tradition of music, as documented by Alan Lomax? An oral tradition that will endure longer than written music, which appeared much more recently in history? Do you think that pop comes from this T instant of technical reproducibility, imagined by Walter Benjamin?
AG: I don’t insinuate it, but I do envisage it as a hypothesis, at the very end of the book, because, indeed, I believe that this form of musical art called recorded popular music, or pop music, has been determined by recording, thanks to its capacity of conservation and archiving. After one hundred years of pop recording, we’ve ended up with an absolutely colossal body of these recordings, which grows exponentially with the democratization of recording techniques: the almost instantaneous systems of placing the results online, such as SoundCloud and YouTube. We’re coming up to an archival crisis. The actual fact that the most erudite spirit imaginable would not be able to embrace the totality of what has been produced by musical industries during the last century makes the phenomenon comparable to the vertigo expressed by Friedrich Nietzsche about human accumulation of knowledge, which ended up in his calling for the importance of forgetfulness against history. But, like Nietzsche, the hypothesis is radical, a scorched earth tactic. I’m not saying that we will stop recording, I’m simply saying that, faced with the mass of recordings and the vanity felt when making yet another, experiences of music aiming more radically towards the “here and now” will come forward – are already coming forward, militantly – reconnecting with modes of oral transmission and another form of memory, a literary one, for example. This doesn’t mean going back to popular music as it was transmitted in a pre-industrial age because, precisely, we are talking about a post-industrial approach.
But one can imagine that the effects of degrowth on recorded popular music will end up reducing its globalized, deterritorialized character, in order to reconstruct other models of sharing. You’ve seen the demonstrations in Chilli right now: hundreds of guitarists came together with their instrument to play a song by the great popular militant singer Victor Jara. Pinochet had him assassinated in 1973, after cutting off his fingers in public. In 2019, hundreds of fingers played his songs in the face of the government. These are symbolic effects that recorded music doesn’t have. However, this reflection does not imply that pop is dying. I’ve thought a lot about the possibility of producing a philosophical, theoretical gesture on pop that is not a death sentence for the object. According to Friedrich Hegel, “Minerva’s owl flies at dusk”: meaning that intelligence only formalizes things once they’ve come to an end. In short, when the concept arrives, the thing is dead. I’d like to think that it is not so. Firstly, because I believe we are dealing with a musical art, and that this reflexivity I am echoing is already there, in it, expressed in different forms, from the start. And also because I am a musician myself, and I practice this art, finding the expressive resources to say what we are today. But I still believe that if the musical art of pop survives, it will have to reinvent itself throughout the collapse of capitalism, capitalism that so widely accompanied its expansion…
JB: You also hypothesized that pop, as “recorded popular music,” could disappear, replaced by streamed “functional music,” a continuous flow destined to accompany our diverse activities. Hasn’t that already been happening over the past ten years? Hasn’t the emancipating aim of pop been definitively corrupted?
AG: Yes. There, too, I don’t think it could disappear in the way any artist seeking an authentic form of expression could disappear from the surface of the earth, but the capacity the musical industry has of producing functional pop music is actually quite alarming for the aesthete seeking truly singular objects. Nothing new under the sun, really, because Muzak has been around for some time. On the other hand, the listening modes have really changed. Spotify is a relatively scary platform from this point of view, with its playlists associated with your daily actions. I recently noticed that such a fundamental artist as Joni Mitchell was classified in the “Unrecognized” playlist. That’s really a conception of music made to accompany your sport activity and your Uber Eats order at the end of the day.
JB: Algorithms are now capable of recomposing a song from all the Beatles’ songs (as can be heard in the song Daddy’s Car, created by the SONY CSL Research Lab). Do you think that resorting to algorithms and automatization will determine the future of pop music?
AG : Yes and no. This type of experience is exhilarating, because you feel like you’re falling into a science fiction movie, with stars so de-realized that they could easily be AI, without that changing much. If we learn tomorrow that Kanye West is in fact the name of an AI, what difference would that make? Would his songs be less moving or, on the contrary, more moving? I know that, for people, what’s missing in robot singers and composers is not so much the flesh and blood as it is finitude. It seems to me that we could certainly be moved by a robot’s song, provided that we could feel that it was composed by a robot, meaning a finite being with its possibilities and limits. We feel empathy for the finite being (and not the infinite one), and this finitude touches us in a song. The robot composer like the robot playing chess against Garry Kasporov doesn’t have anything interesting for pop music. You don’t compose a good song by knowing billions of possible harmonic combinations, but, on the contrary, by searching through the limits of your way of being, and sometimes profiting from accidents. You can, of course, programme an algorithm in a random mode for it to produce accidents, but the “artificial” subjectivity capable of choosing one accident rather than another still remains to be found. Artificial intelligence alone, as it exists today, has not yet been configured for subjectivity, meaning the fact of possessing its own perspective on what it produces. This capacity, which is not about unlimited intelligence, but about limited intelligence, is essential for completing a song.
JB: In 2014, you said in Chronic’art: “There is something fundamentally dead and frozen in glamour. The idea is not about forbidding yourself from going there, but actually about playing with this odour of decomposition.” What artist embodies this “morbid” glamour in pop today?
AG: I remember it was when Lana Del Rey’s album Ultraviolence came out. I have the impression that she’s kept that morbidity, even if she seems to be moving away from a parody of retro sensuality. But there are artists who go much further in decomposition. FKA Twigs’ disc covers remind me of the next stage. There are colours and textures that burst forth like glamorous lips, but the whole picture produces a more disturbing portrait that no longer stems from the aesthetics of seduction within the idea of glamour. I have the feeling that Instagram today is invaded by faces with a type of decomposed glamour – there are even special filters for it – in which the sensual beauty of a face is exaggerated to the point of caricature. The principle of selfies, with their derisive side they always ends up inducing, reinforces this phenomenon.
JB: Fantasy and relinquished desire play a preeminent role in in the pop star system. Constructing a character has never been as ambivalent as it is today. There is an absolute contradiction between outrageous narcissism and the notion of transparency, in a paradoxical mix of fusion and rupture between public and private life. How do you approach fame and public personality? Do you think that the phenomena of narcissistic representation and the selfie install another way of democratizing the status of a pop icon?
AG: I think that celebrity is not an exclusively pop question. There are thousands of pop artists who are not celebrities, even if they are very important, they can even be cult figures. Are Robert Wyatt and Jim O’Rourke celebrities? On the other hand, many actors, writers and TV hosts are famous. So, the first thing to see from that is that pop isn’t the exclusive matrix of stars with their train of extravagances that used to be destined for the tabloids and that are now available in a continuous flow on Twitter. Ever since the advent of Hollywood, the American cultural industry has given this troubled zone of private life that becomes public, a zone of exhibited intimacy, unprecedented amplitude and seduction. All those celebrities unfurl their intimacy, and we gradually learn that it hides another – as if all famous Americans had become double or triple agents – prefiguring contemporary celebrities whose main difference is not so much the narcissism as the much more democratic character. In a sense, this is what we can call pop, celebrity accessible to all, Warhol’s fifteen minutes of fame. Pop musical art is an art that has massively welcomed uninitiated subjects into the realm of art. The pop star, before being a narcissistic figure, is a highly democratic figure. When Kanye West writes in a song that he is God, Jesus or Yeezus himself, it’s certainly megalomaniac, rather than narcissistic, but Jesus isn’t Narcissus, he is not defined by his beauty, but by his sacrifice, and his universal message is for all. In his song “New Body,” Kanye speaks of “All God’s Children”: pop and catholic religion get along very well together over the principle of ecumenism: equality of chances before God (either Christian or pop in this case).
JB: The image of the pop star has never been as incarnated and disincarnated all at once. Record companies build narratives from scratch around personalities, kept in check by the media as well as by fans, and whose impact artists cannot always control. People criticized Lana Del Rey, for example, for her artificiality, to the extent that she made a comeback as the girl next door, in jeans and sneakers. This authenticity seemed just as fabricated, even more so. The paradox of pop is that it can attain the immediate proximity of feeling while embodying excess, the inaccessible and the untouchable all at once. Today, it seems like music isn’t enough, there has to be some kind of marketing package, often as a storytelling about the life of the artist. Pop also marks the invention of all things monumentally fake, where sincerity walks hand in hand with the simulacrum of sincerity. One could say that David Bowie was the absolute forerunner of these narcissistic games with identity. How do you tackle the question of the artifice? Do you think that this phenomenon of hyper-narcissism harms the music in itself?
AG: In my opinion, analysing narcissism won’t get us very far. Storytelling has always existed – just look at all the lies Bob Dylan had to tell to legitimize his beginnings. False groups are all part of pop’s history: from the blackfaces in the Minstrel Shows in the early 19th century to the Monkees, a sort of pseudo-Beatles group fabricated in the 60s to create American rivals to the Fab Four. So many totally fabricated characters can be found throughout the history of pop. One could even say that inauthenticity is part of the aesthetic definition of pop. It’s one of the theses in the beginning of my book: Adorno’s point of view as the “hyperbolic hater” who detects this congenital inauthenticity initiates the critical dialectics that enable us to understand the aesthetic function of this musical art. If we deny this anchorage in communication strategies and in the world of merchandise, we miss out on the pop consciousness that strives to resist all this, and which, throughout the sometimes improbable proposals, manage to oppose to lies a form of artistic truth – and political truth (Residents with ocular man-globe bodies as well as outrageous although almost hologrammatic stars of PC Music like Sophie).
JB: In your book, one often comes across the notions of idiosyncrasy, singularity, subjectivity and vernacularity… Couldn’t one say that all these terms cover the actual essence of pop, even though it is a mass phenomenon? Wouldn’t we be looking for the smallest and the largest common denominator in pop?
AG: Yes, you could say it like that! The most nominalist and the most universal musical art (in its utopic concept, that I define as utopia of popularity), but even that should be nuanced: critiques of the false universal often lead popular music to claim assert particularity against universality, our music against theirs.
JB: It’s funny how in contemporary art, music is mostly a decorative element associated with an installation, or it becomes an event “with added cultural value” just because it was knighted by the art world. On the other hand, Anglo Saxon pop takes inspiration from contemporary art in both its strategies and its visual aspects, from Red Krayola to New Order. Do you know Mark Leckey? Along with Jeremy Deller, he’s part of this generation of artists who entirely lived through and digested the Rave years in England. Pop in England has always been imbricated in rave culture and contemporary art, which is far from being the case in France. How do you explain this social and cultural gap?
AG: It’s true that there’s a gap: Anglo Saxons have been taking pop seriously for a long time now,; they know that you can have an inside, reflexive relationship that is just as advanced with pop as you can with contemporary art. It makes the borders more permeable. In France, intelligence had been diverted from this object for decades. In the 60s and 70s, left wing intellectuals, even those who were apparently the most pop like Gilles Deleuze, didn’t know this object well enough to say anything interesting about it. In France, pop was long identified with the masses, and the world’s Americanization; if any, pop art provided a vaguely theorized image, although it was judged to be indigent, which says it all. These prejudices make any type of more avant-garde forms of creation impossible. However, I strongly believe that the musical art of pop would not gain much from becoming a branch of contemporary art.
Translation by Emmelene Landon
Cover: FKA Twigs, live at Berlin, March 2015. © Andreas Meixensperger
Agnès Gayraud was born in Tarbes, France, in 1979. She lives in Lyon, and teaches philosophy and aesthetics at the Villa Arson, École Nationale Supérieure d’Art, in Nice. She studied at the École Normale Supérieure de la rue d’Ulm. She passed her aggregation, and her doctoral thesis, defended in 2010 at the Université Paris IV – Sorbonne, was entitled: “Critique of Subjectivity and its Figures in the Works of T.W. Adorno.” During this time, she also composed – and published – songs, under the name La Féline. Between philosophy, practice (as a musician, La Féline) and musical critique (for the newspaper Libération), her book Dialectic of Pop, on the aesthetics of popular recorded music. Her third album, Vie Future, has just come out with Kwaidan Records late 2019, after Adieu l’enfance in 2014 and Triomphe in 2017.