July 05, 2006

Scritti's sweet sickness


    His new album is called ‘White Bread, Black Beer’…

    ‘Why? It’s pretty much all I live on – Guinness and a lovely, soft, gooey, terribly-bad-for-you white bread from the local Turkish bakery. It’s also a reference to when I worked with all these R&B musicians in New York in the ’80s – if you played something they didn’t like they’d frown and say, “Oh man, that’s so white-bread”. Meaning that it came from that “white” pop culture which is seen as largely voided of nutrition, substance, goodness, or indeed “soul”. And that definitely got my antennae going, because I’m mistrustful of “soul” and I very much like white, processed pop music. Which, in a way, is what this album celebrates.’

    Instead of any fulfilment or resolution, Scritti's music delivers the bliss of the lover's discourse in all its ellipses, contradiction and repetition, its endless pursuit of an unattainable object. The disembodied, depthless, non-linear effects, and the borrowing of pop's language of love try to undo desire's usual articulation in coherent drives and stable identity while reinscribing or repeating the very 'soul' language that's used to complete the self in today's pop: the sweet nothings heard beside, within the sexual healing.
    -Paul Oldfield, 'After Subversion: Pop Culture and Power' (1989)

A fascinating conjunction: listening to Scritti Politti's quietly stunning new album - or rather being seduced and ravished by it - while reading Mladen Dolar's A Voice and Nothing More. If, as Simon claims, White Bread, Black Beer is an album without a 'sonic concept', must we conclude that the songs are Green's version of a soul-baring? After all the deferrals, the veilings, the deviations, finally a revelation: this is Me? The album's title seems to invite such an interpretation, suggesting a negative alchemy, the reversion of Sublime agalma into basic foodstuffs. Without a sonic concept, we are left only with the honey-pure Voice, one of the most distinctive in Pop - and the Voice, so we have always been told, is the bearer of pure Presence, guarantor of authenticity and veracity...

This, precisely, is what Dolar challenges. Dolar's claim is not that Derrida was wrong that the voice has been privileged in a certain version of metaphysics, but that this has never been the whole story. 'There exists a different metaphysical history of voice, where the voice, far from being the safeguard of presence, was considered to be dangerous, threatening and possibly ruinous.' Tellingly, Dolar's alternative history of metaphysics goes via the treatment of music. (Incidentally, it is hard not to read Plato's admonition, quoted by Dolar, that '[a] change to a new type of music is something to beware of as a hazard of all our fortunes...[f]or the modes of music are never disturbed without unsettling of the most fundamental political and social conventions' as a critique of both PoMo Popism and nostalgic rockism). Dolar's argument is that Law-Logos has always sought to differentiate itself from a voice conceived of as feminine and chaotic, but Logos cannot extirpate the voice, and indeed depends upon it: what is the fundamental expression of the Law if not the voice of the Father?

How could your nothings be so sweet?

What to make of Green's voice, then? Or, to pose the same question from the other side: what is the minimal difference that has always separated Scritti's deconstructions from the Real Thing? There's a tendency to locate Green's undoings and unsettlings on the level of signifiers, as if his subversion were all to do with Wordplay, and his voice were merely a site for natural expressivity. But, as Dolar establishes, the 'object voice' is neither the voice stripped of all sensual qualities in order to become the neutral transmitter of signifiers, nor the voice stripped of all signification in order to become a pure source of aesthetic pleasure. With Green's voice, we continually slide between two types of Non-Sense: the nonsense of 'the lover's discourse', the nursery-rhyme-like reiterations of baby-talk phrases that are devoid of meaning, but which are nevertheless the most important utterances people perform or hear; and also the nonsense of the voice as sound, another kind of sweet nothing. That is why Green's lyrics look very different when you read them; the voice almost prevents you hearing them except as senseless sonorous blocks, mechanically repeated refrains.

What is disturbing about Cupid & Psyche by comparison with the New Pop that preceded is precisely its lack of any self-conscious meta-presence. This is where I slightly disagree with Simon, when he argues that Cupid & Psyche is 'about love rather than in love.' It seems to me that what makes Cupid & Psyche so disturbingly depthless is precisely the absence of that space between the song's form and the subject; the songs instantiate the lover's discourse, they do not comment on it. Cupid & Psyche's songs, creepily, aren't about anything, any more than love itself is. Compare Cupid & Psyche with ABC's The Lexicon of Love (an album of love songs about love songs, if ever there was one), for instance. Martin Fry's presence is ubiquitous in The Lexicon of Love, manifesting itself in every raised eyebrow and set of inverted commas. But on Cupid & Psyche we get precious little sense of a 'real', biographical Green behind or beyond the record; as opposed to Self-consciousness, we have 'reflexivity without a self (not a bad name for the subject').' (Dolar) There is only the void, the voice and the signifying chain, unraveling forever in a shopping mall of mirrors, a whispering gallery of sweet nothings... But what is disturbing about Cupid & Psyche is the suggestion that this really is love, this impersonal, idiot rhyming is all love is. That is why Cupid & Psyche is far more unsettling than the supposed 'reversion to a pre-linguistic condition' of the 'Kristevan' psychedelic rock celebrated by Simon in the late 80s (and mentioned in the Paul Oldfield essay I cited above as a point of comparison with Scritti); the supposed 'oceanic dissolution of self' assumes, not only that such a dissolution can be attained, but that there is a 'real self' that can be dissolved. Like the first two Roxy albums, Cupid & Psyche's message is far more radical: the supposed 'real', 'authentic' self, with its emotional core, is a structural illusion; our most treasured 'inner' feelings are trite repetitions; there is no intimate, only an extimate.

I guess it's a sickness/ that keeps me wanting...

The excess of Green's voice resides in its sweetness, a sweetness that seems unhealthy, sickly, which puts us on our guard even as it seduces us. Green's voice is synthetic, candied, rather than authentic, wholesome. It already sounds inhuman, so that, upon first hearing rave's pitched-up chirruping vocals, the obvious comparison was with Scritti's androgynous cooing. All of this is anticipated on the track that I find most captivating when I listen to Cupid & Psyche now, the machine ballad, 'A Little Knowledge', in which Green duets with what sounds like a woman, but which is in fact a Fairlight-sprite, a synthetic succubus constructed from his own voice pitched up. (This exchange with a synthetic Spectre happens before the 'real woman', session singer B J Nelson, officially comes in...)

It's worth remembering at this point that Green is very much the White ghost at the revel of contemporary Black pop. At least since More Brilliant Than Sun, disco, techno and house's (non)roots in white synthetics have been exposed - Moroder inducting Donna Summer into a labyrinth of synthesizers, Chic wanting to be Roxy Music, Cybotron stealing Ultravox's accents and sound - but Cupid & Psyche's function as a template for contemporary R and B is far less rehearsed. Specifically via its influence on Jam and Lewis's production of Janet Jackson's epochal Control, but more generally through its intuition - or entrepreneurial leap - that the flesh and blood of (what was then called) Soul could be sutured with hip hop's artificiality and abstraction machine, Cupid & Psyche instituted a 'new paradigm' for globalized Pop. Skank Bloc Bologna has become the Global retail arcade of capital. Cupid & Psyche is chillingly impersonal, but in a way that is much different to the staged impersonality of Kraftwerk, Numan and Visage which fascinated black American hip hoppers, techno and house pioneers in the early 80s. Scritti's erasure of Soul goes by way of a neurotically note-perfect, ultra-fastidious simulation of a hyper-Americanised 'language of love'. It is no longer a matter of technical machines versus real emotional beings, but of 'authentic emotion' as itself the refraining of signifying and sonorous machines. (It is therefore no surprise that another destroyer of Soul, Miles Davis, should have covered Scritti songs and collaborated with Green).

All of which goes some way to explaining the title of the new album, which initially seems grossly inappropriate, since the songs' souffle lightness could not be further from carnal carbohydrate stodge or beery bloating. But what if these substances are not 'basic' and 'life-giving' but the non-vital excess without which life would be nothing? What if 'white bread' indicates not the normal and the nutritious but the synthetic, and 'black' beer indicates not the homey and the heavy but the addictive?


There is a performative flatness about the opening track and first single, 'The Boom Boom Bap'; it a Song about longing and addiction, which is itself arrestingly, gorgeously addictive. I can honestly say that I was hooked from the moment I heard Green sing the opening phrase, the song's title. 'The Boom Boom Bap' is so sublimely, achingly poised that the temptation is to keep hitting rewind, to remain lost in the song's plateau, in which pop's habitual urgencies are anti-climatically suspended.

play it over and over again/ play it over and over again

'The Boom Boom Bap', as Green told Simon, is ostensibly about the thin line 'between being in love with something and being unhealthily addicted to it'. The three addictions with which the song deals are drinking, hip hop - 'the title itself is named after hip hop’s bass-boom and syncopated breakbeats' - and love. Addiction is the pathological motor of life. 'The beat of my life' is not any natural, biological rhythm but the non-organic pulse of the (death) drive. 'If hooks could kill', Green muses, knowing that of course they can; that being hooked can be lethal, but that not being hooked on anything is even more deadly and deadening.

When you do eventually pull yourself out of the honeyed embrace of 'The Boom Boom Bap', you find yourself yielding to an album of folds and fragments, slivers and sketches, in which everything comes to an end before you expect it to (amplifying your longing to hear it,again and again). Thankfully, Green's obsession with hip hop emerges not through the brute Presence of rap (what could be more Present, now, than rap?), but via a certain absence in the production which prevents the tracks ever closing into organic wholeness.

I was discussing with Owen the other week how mid-80s technology drew almost all Pop into an arid, dated, hyper-glossed blandness: the two most conspicuous exceptions to this trend were Cupid & Psyche (which succeeds precisely because of its total identification with the Time and the Technics) and Kate Bush's Hounds of Love. White Bread, Black Beer is like Green's late-arriving Hounds of Love, an album in which Pop's history (and his own) can be re-visited without being reiterated, in which Styles can be traversed without their ever being a question of inconsistent eclecticism. The very refusal to strain for contemporaneity makes the album far more Now than it would have been if it engaged in an unseemly pursuit of Street cool.

The references to London, to 'British Homes Stores', to the names of Green's schoolteachers, restore some of the locality that was remorselessly stripped away by the proto-Starbucks 'third place' mid-Atlantic sheen of Cupid & Psyche. This, evidently, also means a restoration of some biographical specificity; the songs are no longer lover's labyrinths that anyone can enter, but memory lanes some of whose landmarks only Green can recognize. Amidst all of the trails of influence you can trace across the album, those Appolinians, Brian Wilson and Paul McCartney, recur most insistently. Would the album then be a redemption through melody? A recovery - from sickness? A recovery - of the Self?

And when I'm with you baby/ I know just who I am/ and no-one understands the way that you do/ darling

Hearing Green sing lines like these is a curiously haunting and unsettling experience, since Green's voice carries with it all those Cupid & Psyche traces which ironize and undercut any gestures towards 'reallly meaning it' or 'really being' anything. In any case, listen closer to the song in which those lines occur ('Locked'), and all is not as it seems. 'People want a piece of me,' Green sings, 'but who they get is not what she seems.' In any case, autobiography, would still be a form of writing (and the most deceptive kind), and the 'you' that is the usual addressee of the love song is never the ostensible partner, the 'real flesh and blood person', but the big Other. Hence David Kelsey in Highsmith's This Sweet Sickness - a Scritti title if ever there was one - a man who conducts his pathological love affair primarily through letters written to his fantasized Other (and which are ignored and misunderstood by their supposed flesh and blood object), is the lover in its purest state.... All the parallels of love with addiction on White Bread, Black Beer suggest that Green the writer still knows that love is essentially both pathology and cure, so Scritti's sweetness remains sick, their sickness sweet....

Posted by mark at July 5, 2006 05:35 PM | TrackBack