Views of the Baths of Titus, Giovanni Battista Piranesi
In part one of this essay, I laid out the disappointing reality of the walking dead or pop modernism that has taken hold of contemporary cultural forms. This hollowed-out take on radical 20th century aesthetic movements is particularly relevant to dance music. Over the remainder of this essay, I’d like to update Mark Fisher’s conception of pulp modernism and lay out a few illustrative examples of its potential.
In an essay that went through several iterations, first on the k-punk blog and later in The Weird and the Eerie collection, Mark Fisher’s examination of The Fall’s music through the lens of the “weird” has been a provocative touchstone for both my understanding of Mark E. Smith’s post-punk outfit and the greater potential of a counter-hegemonic popular music. Almost right off the bat, Fisher juxtaposes the “gnarled, collage cut-up” of The Fall with the “minimalist, metallic austerity,” of Joy Division, marking out what he sees as the fundamental break between a classical modernism and the pulp modernist mode.
In rejecting both lumpen-punk’s reductive literalism (“circles with A in the middle”) and the bourgeois excesses of prog, The Fall’s music was full of “gobbets of linguistic detritus ejected direct from the mediatised unconsciousness” and came in the form of “tracks,” not “songs.” Contrasted with their more urbane counterparts, The Fall were opposed not only to an older, establishment right, but to a middle-class left who “talk of Chile while driving through Haslingden.” Circumventing social realism entirely, Smith’s lyrics dealt in “hexes”, the “restricted linguistic, gestural and behavioural codes which produce a sense of inferiority and enforce class destiny” and were unfiltered by any reflexive, or centering, subjectivity.
Where pulp modernism really takes off in relation to The Fall is in the convergence of the weird and the grotesque. Drawing on Philip Thomson’s study of the grotesque, Fisher’s understanding is characterized by the “co-presence of the laughable and that which is not compatible with the laughable.” This is exemplified in the crudely rendered creature (“emigres from old green glades”), left etched into the cover of the 1982 single “City Hobgoblins”. The etching functions as a threshold between worlds, muddling the ontological distinction between inside and outside and making irrelevant “standard modes of legibility.”
The humor here does not come from a recognizable common language, but from a “psychotic outside,” formulated in a “psycho(tropological) spewing of associations and animosities.” Juxtaposing their gnarled sound and fantastical lyrical content with the mundanity of growing up in the post-industrial north of England, The Fall “reacquaint modernism with its disavowed pulp doppelganger.” Arriving on the precipice of Thatcher’s rule and the crushing of the labor movement, The Fall’s Grotesque (After the Gramme) and Hex Enduction Hour can retroactively be seen as a fledgling frankenstein entity emerging from modernism’s corpse.
In bringing Fisher’s conception of pulp modernism to contemporary dance music, it’s worthwhile to outline a few of the key modes or qualities that both apply to The Fall and can be extrapolated out to a larger context. The first is the grotesque, referring to that which is out of place. Fisher places the grotesque as a subcategory of the weird, noting its linguistic root (“grottoes”) in the ornamental design found in Titus’ baths. Those designs featured foliage, flowers, fruits, humans and animal shapes with no tangible relation to then categories of classical art. The mixed forms defied both the aesthetic conventions of the time and the laws of physics and biology, approving rather than condemning the falsehoods depicted within. Differentiated from other weird modes, humor runs through the grotesque, embracing the unworldly impossibility of those mixed forms.
Jean Baudrillard’s understanding of the schizophrenia of media systems, elucidated in 1987’s “The Ecstacy of Communication”, comes as the second pulp modernist mode. Pointing to the effacement of the distinction between interior and exterior caused by exposure to contemporary media systems, Baudrillard writes of the “harsh and inexorable light of information and communication.” The obscene, formerly defined by what was “hidden, repressed, forbidden or obscure,” is now determined by “what no longer has any secret.” This “superficial saturation” and “extermination of interstitial protective spaces” is what makes the old modernist modes, dependent on singular and familiar linguistic codes irrelevant. Pulp modernism emerges in their place, re-coded by innate overexposure to the multiplicitous effect of communications systems (then television, now the internet) and the “forced extroversion of all interiority.”
Lastly, intertextuality- which rises to the level of a strict methodology in The Fall, as well as the work of authors like H.P. Lovecraft and Philip K. Dick- provides the structure in which a pulp modernist art can flourish. The characters and creatures of Smith’s lyrics are rarely fleshed out in the scope of a single track, instead functioning as vessels for themes and motifs that run through the group’s entire catalog. The stories, told episodically and from multiple points of view as Fisher notes, are fragmented and splayed in collage-form and eschew easy interpretation. In opposition to the “false symmetries of good taste”, incompleteness and fragmentation are the narrative drivers of Smith’s grotesque internal logic.
These three modes, the grotesque, schizophrenic and intertextual, are bound together in the work of The Fall, but can be updated via the lens of recent output at the fringes of dance music. The work of Araabmuzik, DJ Nate, Elysia Crampton, Kelman Duran and Lotic embody differing elements of a pulp modernist aesthetic and its relevance as we enter the 2020s.
Seven and a half minutes into Lotic’s “DAMSEL in DISTRESS”, the now characteristic sound of a pane of glass breaking rings out and Beyonce’s reverb-laden voice enters the mix. This live rendition of “Drunk in Love”, stripped of instrumentation, feels remarkably exposed. Preceded and followed by a spectral volley of noise comprised of Lotic’s now-classic original tracks and edits, Beyonce’s visage comes from a distinct outside, unhinged from any corporeal entity and making irrelevant the ontological distinctions between author, text, and character.
The threshold between inside and outside, that very source of the grotesque, is thrown ajar repeatedly throughout “DAMSEL in DISTRESS”. Fragments of Masters at Work, warped rap production and a jumble of competing club MCs comprise a hysterical surrealism, punctuated by Beyonce’s rendition and an exhilarating ballroom “skirmish”. This is Titus’ baths reimagined as sclerotic club landscape; the human and animal shapes replaced with a legion of zombified dancers commanded by inhuman vocaloid entities.
Where the grotesque becomes relevant to a pulp modernist project is in its contestation of the “classificatory system” which, as Fisher describes, “deems cultures (and populations) to be either refined or vulgar.” As opposed to the toothless conflation of high and low in much postmodernist work, the grotesque makes the distinction irrelevant.
Elysia Crampton’s (as E+E) “FIRE GUT” is a case in point. The closing track on 2013’s THE LIGHT THAT YOU GAVE ME TO SEE YOU, “FIRE GUT” embraces a fantastical pile up of naturalistic strokes made unreal. Composed around Bonnie Rait’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me”, covered in Youtube-fashion and bathed in shimmering, aqueous material turned crackling flames, the track allows for a multitudinous intimacy: at once a love song for an individual and the implication of closeness with both biological and technological communications systems. In later work, Crampton will repeatedly include delirious laughing sounds in her tracks, but it’s not a reach to say that the presence of the laugh already exists in the campy sample choices and disjointed sonics of “FIRE GUT”.
Moving along the axis of sample and vocal-led music, 2010’s Dipset Trance Party and 2011’s Electronic Dream– the former a compilation of tracks featuring Araabmuzik, Invasion Boyz, The Midnite Society and others, and the latter an Araabmuzik solo production- render the effacement of the distinction between interior and exterior in sparkling clarity. The pairing of the now ubiquitous trap drum kit and garish trance leads might not be novel now (although Lil Uzi Vert is still breathing life into the form), but a decade ago it represented a refreshing exit from the hyper-saturated hip hop production of the era.
Arriving on the cusp of America’s EDM boom, the two releases have a precognitive quality, predictive of both dance music’s reemergence in American pop culture and Southern hip hop’s chart reign. They also revel in EDM’s communicative hedonism, embracing the disembodied diva vocals and saccharine melodies of trance and europop and buoying them with a martial structure of glass cutting trap production. This blend of obscene sexuality and hyper-efficient production, sampled from artists like Deadmau5, Headhunterz, and Kaskade, exemplifies what Baudrillard referred to as the “immanent promiscuity” of existing within contemporary media systems: terror, paranoia, elation and obscenity. All at once, all the time.
Also released in 2010, DJ Nate’s Da Trak Genious is akin to Dipset Trance Party and Electronic Dream in its interflow of garish pop forms- Evanescence, Christina Aguilera and Avril Lavigne- and hi tech beat construction. The album, while certainly in Chicago’s lineage of footwork production, felt and still feels like a radical departure from previous iterations of the form. Unlike the smooth assurance of a DJ Rashad track or RP Boo’s wonky idiosyncrasies, Nate’s tracks feel off grid even when rigorously gridded out, frantic even when they hit a cocky strut.
The libidinal drive of the sample material in both Dipset Trance Party and Da Trak Genious is rerouted through a coldly analytic production schema. In describing developments in new automobiles, Baudrillard points to the “uninterrupted interface” between user and machine. The car no longer exhibits power and speed, but an optimized efficiency between the user’s brain and its functions. This is mirrored in Da Trak Genious as ghetto house’s machinic thrust is sidelined, replaced by an icy, calculated beat matrix intended to program dancer’s movements. Subjectivity is replaced here by a fluid interchange between producer, dancer and listener, all coalescing into a singular pulp non-entity.
A sample of a Danish church choir runs through much of the work of Kelman Duran, sampled, looped and mutated, but always recognizable. The choir, alongside sampled vocals from artists like Cardi B, Ivy Queen and Notorious B.I.G., is one of several intertextual techniques utilized by Duran. Mixing narrative from childhood- he was born in the Dominican Republic and grew up in Washington Heights- with bits of speech from his own film projects and other sources, Duran’s output across several albums and self-releases is intensely engrossing. Personal history is intermixed with that of indigenous people from South Dakota and overlaid with the looped and cut up spirit voices drawn from dancehall, reggaeton and hip hop.
In “Memorex for the Krakens”, Fisher explains the crucial nature of intertextuality to pulp modernism, pointing to the primacy of the “author-function” over the “creative-expressive subject.” In asserting a consistent fictional plane across multiple works, the pulp modernist can become a conduit through which entire worlds can emerge. Duran’s two albums to date, 2017’s 1804 KIDS and 2018’s 13th Month, provide a succinct capsule of a far larger patchwork that expands outward with every new transmission. Kelman’s live performances are where he becomes the conduit incarnate, a vector through which his representational plane can be proffered to a frenzied dancefloor.
These artists are just beginning to unfold a dynamic pulp universe. In rejecting the decaying modernism of a past era, a new mutant form has the potential to metastasize in reaction to the uninterrupted interface of contemporary media systems and facilitated by a consistent intertextual threading. The heterogeneous nature of the music included above is a nod to the infancy of the form, but it has a forebear in The Fall and a firm counter-hegemonic standing in its utilization of the grotesque and its relationship to the quotidian.
That relationship to the everyday, entirely lost in the calcified modernisms mentioned yesterday, is of immense importance to the future of any potential radical aesthetic project. Mark E. Smith and The Fall emerged at a key juncture in British history, exposing the contradictions of a fading radicalism while simultaneously opening a portal to new grotesque potentialities. If we are to move beyond dance music’s conjunctive role as the soundtrack to gentrifying and hollowed out urban centers, then a thorough reworking of the industry’s priorities is immediately necessary.
Pulp modernism is not going to defeat intractable systemic issues of political economy in dance music, but it does have the potential to probe the contradictions while marking out the fringes of a new, disjunctive sonic language. Most modes of music consumption, whether on streaming platforms or at festivals, provide a context-less experience, devoid of the apparitional potential of discovery and reinvention. Against this denuded literalism, a pulp ethos has the potential to emerge, comfortable traversing overexposed media systems and established on a foundation of flexible intertextuality. There is so much that is weird and grotesque in the world, yet our music is often painfully exacting, bleached of all transportative potential. Only a “heteroglossic riot of styles” can combat this dreary status quo and bring on catastrophe.