Now this is a weird song. I remember next to nothing about writing it, although it is one of the most recent songs on Madness and Morals. And yet the refrain
Go head on
and even the melody of the refrain have been on my mind since I was a teenager. (I’m 39 now, approximately. Har.) Where to begin? I guess I should begin with the question of my attitude toward Michel Foucault, but a more interesting question is that of how (and whether) an author’s attitudes—or any of his conscious thoughts—manifest themselves in the work of art. Obviously, there is no general answer to the question: various artists impose themselves variously in their artworks. Equally obviously, the negatively connotative word “impose” tips the hand of my own taste. In an earlier post I went on quite a bit about “freedom” and “structure,” and certainly, artists are free to choose—a lot. However, it seems that when the artist chooses to insert argumentation into the artwork, the artwork suffers. Or, more moderately, argumentation is the least interesting aspect of an artwork. So while Dante is clearly making an argument about his interpretation of Christian doctrine, a reader can safely dismiss the truth or falsehood of this dimension of the Divine Comedy. It’s not a matter of avoiding or suppressing argument, but rather, of remaining true to—what is it? The mental faculty that dare not speak its name. So reluctantly I will speak it: imagination.
Now, imagination is a slightly embarrassing property, a bit like the urogenital system in that regard. But just as the urogenital system gives rise (no pun) to the most sublime of human passions, love, so too imagination gives rise to the most sublime of human achievements, art. And like the urogenital system—everybody has one—the imagination is as common as dirt. It’s simply the capacity of the human brain (and probably not only the brains of humans) to produce images. Everybody dreams, everybody imagines. And for auditory learners like me, the imagination manifests itself more aurally than visually. Imagination is the source of art precisely because of an inherent property of images (visual or aural), namely, tone. Now critics define tone, accurately, as the emotional attitude(s) that an artwork expresses. But here’s where the trouble starts. Knowing that art also has a function of self-expression, an artist might quite reasonably say, “I’m going to write a song about how sad I feel (or happy or whatever).” It’s the “about” that messes things up. While it is perfectly appropriate for a song (or other artwork) to represent an artist’s self-expression, expressing an attitude is not the same thing as writing or painting or singing about it. Yeats defined sentimentality—not an admirable quality—as “the will doing the work of the imagination.” If art arises from the imagination, then the artist must accept whatever the imagination produces. To do otherwise is falsehood.
The motto of Louder Than Dirt is “Creativity Integrity Loudness.” Creativity means the capacity for giving imagination material form, like turning a mental image into a painting or a poem. In this context, therefore, Integrity means truth to the imagination, which ends up meaning truth to the audience. That is, we in LTD endeavor to translate what our imaginations give us into music without distorting it with considerations such as politics, commercial success or even audience response. Of course we have political views although, no doubt, our views vary from member to member. Of course we want commercial success. Of course we want audiences to come to our shows and buy our records and enjoy themselves. But those considerations come after the creation of music.
Which brings me at long last to Michel Foucault and my attitude toward him. Foucault was a post-modern French, um, philosopher, I guess, who died around 1980. He was hugely influential during and after his life though his influence appears to be waning somewhat, as typically happens among those who die. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michel_Foucault. I was a big fan in the 80’s, but my own interest in Foucault has declined considerably. But I tried to write the song in the key of feeling and not in the key of intellectual agreement, disagreement or interest. That is, I perceived that my imagination was prompting me to link poetically Foucault the intellectual and Foucault the habitué of amusements wherein the 70’s abounded—hence the “disco” part. And Foucault claimed that his work continued the project of Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals—hence the “superman” part. These notions combined with the “go head on” that had rattled around in my head since childhood to give me the refrain, which is also the chorus.
After that, the verse was pure pleasure. The lyrics consist entirely of sentence fragments, an instance of the “fragmentary exigency” beloved of post-modernists; the phrase is from one M. Nancy who was a Foucault acolyte. (Pace those offended by my flippant treatment of Nancy. Kill me.) These fragments are phrases from the works of Foucault. Here are the lyrics with their sources in parentheses:
Panopticon (Discipline and Punish) and the controlling gaze (Birth of the Clinic)
Uses of pleasure since the classical age (History of Sexuality, vol. 3)
The village idiot playing curds and cream (History of Sexuality, vol. 1)
Madness and morals (Madness and Civilization + Nietzsche) in the abstract machine (actually a phrase of Gilles Deleuze, another Foucault disciple)
Go head on &c.
Deployment of sexuality (History of Sexuality, vol. 1)
Archive and archeology (The Order of Things et passim.)
A private room and a public bath (Hist. of Sex. V. 3 and 70’s amusements)
Homo superior is where it’s at (not a reference to Foucault at all but to David Bowie, “Oh You Pretty Things,” and to Nietzsche)
I assume that by limiting the references to Foucault to sentence fragments, I can better evade the issue of agreement or disagreement. Mere display, rather than engagement. Otherwise, the verse/chorus is extremely conventional: not what you would call “post-modern.” I will address later the special effect placed on Adam’s intoning the refrain. (Or not. Our producer put a funky EQ on Adam’s vocal part.)
Things get complicated when we get to the song’s bridge, or rather, the structure of the song lends itself to complication. After the two fairly standard verses and choruses, we get this little rap, repeated by the Muttering Crowd. Oh how I love the Muttering Crowd, who appear on three or four songs on M&M:
Power over or power to
Power over or power to
Power over or power to
Power to power to
Now, Foucault never to my knowledge made much of a distinction between the people’s exercise of power over other people and the power to do . . . anything. Being an American, I don’t like it when one person has power over another person. So the logic of this section of the song is to mull over two alternatives, ultimately giving the nod to one of them, here, the second alternative, “power to.” The echoing “power” that fades in sounds a little like “pow pow pow,” a child’s imitation of gunfire. It give a nice, sinister tone to this part of the song. And the song closes with instrumental, no vocals, no lyrics. This long ending is actually two contrasting codas, about which anon.
So it’s time to talk about the musical component. Adam and Julian stand out. First I should say that this is an excellent example of live-in-the-studio: we overdubbed nothing but vocals and two notes played on lead guitar. Adam’s clavinet is terrific, especially on the second verse. This is the great effect of drummer-plays-keyboards. Gosh, I guess I left that part out when I was gushing over Adam’s musicianship in my discussion of “Half in Two.” Yes, Adam is a classically trained pianist, but he played drums when he and I started together. So listen carefully to the second verse of “Disco Superman (Michel Foucault)” and hear how the clavinet interlocks with the beat like a groovy conga part. And Julian, recovering guitar player (by the way, a really good guitar player), plays startlingly original bass on this song, especially on the instrumental outro. The way he comes in, “boo boo boo boom” is way cool, but just the way he differentiates each iteration of the chord progression is kind of genius. He does this all the time, and indeed I encourage Joseph and Adam and myself to imitate Julian’s improvisational approach. It’s okay to work up a part, but the real creativity is in the variation. (Don’t make me have to refer to Shakespeare and Milton’s blank verse wherein the real c is in the v.)
Now I must acknowledge what I regard as my only moment of genius on Madness and Morals. Please don’t castigate me as my daughter does for a lack of humility. I’m aware of deficiencies on this CD and in everything I’ve ever done, but don’t expect me to expose them here. Similarly, I know when something has gone well, and as a guitar player, I can tell you that the two notes that mark the transition between “power to” and the instrumental, are among the finest moments musicaux I’ve ever experienced. And much credit must go to our producer, Lord E, though his contribution came after the fact. One reason that I’m so unrestrained in my praise is that the guy who plays those two notes is not the same guy who is writing this post—a somewhat Foucauldian idea. (Foucault proclaimed the “death of the author.”) I mean, DK is writing this and DK played that, but I could no more tell you how I came up with what I played than I could stand on my head and spit out quarters. If I can’t explain the how, I can at least explain the what. Sort of. I actually can’t tell you what the two notes are, though they do seem to span a diminished fifth—the devil’s interval. I can tell you how I articulated them on the guitar: wah-wah pedal, first note up, second note down. So no “wah,” just “unh-aw.” In the mixdown Lord Erudite added nearly-but-not-quite infinite echo which feeds back into a bracingly shrill whine lasting for like 40seconds or almost a quarter of the song. Adam says that the guitar is shouting “fuck YOU,” and I concur heartily.
Then we play this punky go-round of the chorus chords, though the change in tempo makes it somewhat unrecognizable as the chorus. By the way, have I ever praised Louder Than Dirt’s ability to change tempos? Well, Louder Than Dirt is really good at changing tempos. So we play this uptempo punky bit wherein Julian shines and then change tempo again, and Joseph gets his moment of genius. Playing ride on the toms, Joseph breaks the tempo down, so we’re at a third tempo now (in a 3-minute pop song), into a tempo that that Jo has called “dinosaur steps.” I’m speechless. So brilliant. And I love how Adam keeps playing these little afterthoughts, answered by a little run on the bass, after the final chord.
Sorry, Dear Reader, for this absurdly long post. The fact is, a lot went into “Disco Superman (Michel Foucault),” and it’s the song that gives our new CD, “Madness and Morals,” its title. It’s a listenable, accessible song that reveals surprising depths, and it amply demonstrates the LTD credo of “Integrity, Creativity and Loudness.”