1979: Janet Kay – “Closer To You”

Where dub has been described as x-ray music, sometimes it’s worth asking: what’s on the screen, and what does it represent? The two trends in reggae of the 70s and 80s, Conscious Roots and Lovers Rock, are often seen as strange bedfellows, or as a good and a bad twin – Roots not only has a badass, smash-the-system attitude and a cultural kudos in its otherness, diasporic identity, and relationship to punk, it also provides an addictive plethora of apocalyptic Biblical imagery. Romantic reggae has recently been subject to attempts at critical rehabilitation, usually in a counter-critique to the previously dominant style which was dismissive of commerciality and decried the rise of dancehall, slackness, and bling as major trends in Jamaican music (the associated glorification of misogyny and homophobia tends to get left out of this narrative).

But to my mind, Lovers Rock – in particular, the English brand of smooth, melancholy synth-reggae pioneered by the likes of Dennis Bovell, Louisa Marks and Janet Kay – is interesting in another register entirely. When we look at the situation of Jamaican immigrants to the United Kingdom, we see a double diaspora – the exodus from Africa, and then from Jamaica. The post-colonial, post-enslavement anger of Jamaicans of African origin is refracted through the lens of a twofold estrangement, a colder consciousness where not only origins, but any positive location of contemporary identity becomes a haunted site of alienation – what we might term, with Tim Hecker, “Arctic Lovers Rock.” On one reading, we can see Lovers Rock as the sublimation of this affective state. In further queering the diasporic narrative (despite straight-up heterosexual themes), it brings women to center stage in a way that was never possible in conscious roots, nor in the macho world of dancehall (despite some notable exceptions in both cases).

Janet Kay is best known for the sublime “Silly Games,” but “Closer To You” is perhaps her most paradigmatic expression of the themes that I’ve been explicating. The downbeat skank of reggae, dry ‘n’ heavy with African influences, is synthetically transmuted into a smoothed-over surface which manages and contains, but never conceals the emotional textures of traumatic displacement. High modernity, that is, makes palatable the anguish it has created and allows the object to sell that anguish back to herself in romanticized-individualist form. It does so by mediating the content through contemporary technology which universalizes the material and strips it of its historical context.

However much resistance is subsumed in this way, though, the surface thus produced is always already ruptured – and here this is expressed lyrically, in the failed attempt at disavowal (“I know I shouldn’t feel this way”), the doubly spectral presence of the Other feeding into a mistrust of locatory truth (“now you say you’re here to stay … just a shadow of a doubt”), the diasporic subject’s desire for boundaries to be re-liquidized or liquidated (“now I’m a woman you’re a man … let the vibes flow through/ free your feelings and emotions”), the hopeless desire to bridge insupportable geo-temporal distances and arrive at some kind of meaningful center (“no matter how far I reach out/ I don’t seem to touch your heart”). Paradoxically, it’s this impossible yearning, refracted through a lens (surely one of the characteristic implements of the modern condition!) such that its emotional glow can never alight directly on the object, which allows Lovers tunes like “Closer To You” to touch the listener.

DeLorean

There’s a lot of good music out there, and it’s not all being released this year. With DeLorean, we aim to rediscover overlooked artists and genres, to listen to music historically and contextually, to underscore the fluidity of music. While we will cover reissues here, our focus will be on music that’s not being pushed by a PR firm.

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