2011: That Other Folklore Pop’s 2011

We celebrate the end of the year the only way we know how: through lists, essays, and mixes. Join us as we explore the music and films that helped define the year. More from this series

In Jennifer Diski’s recent review of CUFOS board member Thomas Bullard’s The Myth and Mystery of UFOs, she notes how stories of underground worlds, parallel to our own, have comforted and terrified us for centuries — not just UFOs, but ghosts, giants, Jesus: anything unusual is available as an article of faith; sign, signal, and evidence. To read 2011 through its pop music is to track just such a narrative, a Dreamland-ish plate carrée of fantastic traversals joining grids of lewd, weird material.

This folkloric dynamic is a black market, a cipher through which another 2011 can be read — one where the UN Security Council didn’t, under pressure from the US, the UK, and France, subvert its own resolutions to effect violent regime change in Libya; where the louring autonomic terror devices that have rattled around Pakistan all year long are not the bleeding-edge of a hardcore post-digital technocracy on the warpath; where Macho Man Randy Savage and Steve Jobs didn’t die (or die twice).

Rather, 2011 becomes a tripartite permutation in which a variety of (frequently abstract) existential encountersi are transformed into new, figurative outcomes. In the tales of the civic, the sublunary, and the supernal, three modes of epiphany find expression in the likes of DJ Diamond and Kangding Ray, Oneohtrix Point Never and Hype Williams, and The Caretaker and Chris Watson, respectively. These tales are not topoi, operating pars totalis, but instead work as sigils, registers of concealment, a means of establishing a relationship with an audience, with distinct properties granting certain functions. They express the truth of Bataille’s solar anus: “the world is purely parodic… each thing seen is the parody of another, or is the same thing in a deceptive form.”



The streets of Chicago are brick-and-neon dancefloors, where to walk is to dance, “to take the step for a long walk,” in the words of Brandon Labelle. The glittered high-rises of the Loop (business-and-culture district) bounce gazes out toward the lake, while the diffuse, ‘hoodish Low End sneaks in around the back. The kindle of its Caribbean heatwaves and the chill winds of its Canadian snows mimic the tension between afterhour slow jams and post-dub eschatological dread. It was here where Ron Hardy’s Dionysian reduction of disco’s machine music to a pithy, mindbashing corporeal psychedelia took place; it was here where footwork cloudburst a glossolalia of fricative basslines and sibilant snare crunches into a febrile syntax of phase-shifting phonemes grounded in the geographopathic hyperstasis of a dirempt cityii.

Why this architectural misdirection? As early as 1893, H.G. Wells visited the Chicago World Fair to report “gauntly ugly and filthy factory buildings, monstrous mounds of refuse, desolate empty lots littered with rusty cans, old iron and indescribable rubbish.” Could it be because to conceal is also to start afresh, and alone of US cities Chicago — grounded in the fire of 1871, builds and rebuilds itself from the indicatrices of its citizens’ desires; an unprairie of abgrades and hexware — starts again? Is this why footwork DJs Diamond, Rashad, T-Why, et al. understand implicitly that the rhythm is the figure of its own disruption? Dance crews like the Legends Clique understand that the sonic is as dependent upon their thigmotactic momentum as it is upon Chicago — a feverish counter-rhythmiii.

If Chicago is always already starting over, that is because it is always already rubble — the figure of civic pop in 2011 — to the extent that the US, perhaps the greatest empire of junk yet known, waged a struggle for its soul over a sordid, sacred bomb site. In the Duncan Jones movie Source Code, the nuclear bomb-toting villain is asked why he wants to destroy Chicago. A Chicagoan himself, the villain replies: “The world is Hell. We might have a chance to start over in the rubble. But first, there has to be rubble.” Rubble is the means by which the Hardyan psychedelic reduction fuses with the glitch-dream of abgrading electronic sound into its most formal elements — those moments of error or misrecognition when the machine bypasses musicality in order to salvage speech for itself. House music is fascinated with rubble, both as sign and consequence — we’ll bring down the walls, you and me, as we smash through the barriers of everyday life. Rubble is the dual, belligerent core of post-disco dance music — both world-to-come and what’s-left-behind, both the New Thing and the remainder of a tradition. So if people spoke about a strong year for house, they also spoke of a strong year for rubble: the effects of which were felt in other domains.

Kangding Ray’s Or (raster-noton) could abandon contingencies like place and reference because of the producer’s lyrical sense of socio-political angst. This was technocracy-as-dissent, a search for post-human universalism that brought an intensity of unease, largely absent from DJ Diamond’s Flight Muzik (Planet Mu), into sharper focus — as if the hyperactive tech-flecked funk of the Night Slugs stable had withered into vectors of rust and lichen. So much of the logic of concrete — the material face of the civic — speaks, in one way or another, to a bricolage of holes. Abutment, reinforcement, interception, extrusion: mute blockages in space, dreams of total power that break up surfaces. TMT’s James Parker described how the civic is interested in time as extension, division, irruption; an opportunity for cutting. With Or, we can go further and say that the Eurozone contingent, intolerant of Iceland’s lead, employed the civic as a machine for the repression of time, a shackled weightlessnessiv.

Recession chic already augured at year’s end by Streep-clone Thatcheristas, the next year — when green will turn blue — may witness the rebirth of civic success stories (something like this is already discernible in the besmirched opulence of 100% Silk and Shabazz Palaces). But if the ascendancy of footwork and the outstanding Or are accepted as civic pop’s annual documents par excellence, it is because they snapshot system failures and not successes — failure alone can be interesting, because success is only available at the level of a mainstream that has waxed out-of-touch and out-of-reach, accessible only to a uniformity of reverie that barely fills the space of wish-fulfillment; to kitsch, which is the shadow of the civic in a post-scarcity of information. Civic pop in 2011 spoke of the city’s search for its ground — for its rights, a cause, some support — and of a fanatical walking on the spot and a cartoonish treading of air.

i Check my forthcoming analysis of Sartre’s The Emotions: Outline of a Theory for more on abstract existential encounters.
ii Why should hyperstasis apply only to pop?
iii For the relation of the dancer to the city, see chapters 3 and 4 of Labelle’s Acoustic Territories, which are definitive.
iv Interestingly, the only way the hero of Source Code can save the day is by not repeating the same 8 minutes over and over again (a ministerial professor tells us “source code is not time travel, rather, it is time reassignment”).

We celebrate the end of the year the only way we know how: through lists, essays, and mixes. Join us as we explore the music and films that helped define the year. More from this series

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