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 the sense that its economic significance was swamped by civic and sublunary ruses, the supernal — the divine and heavenly — was a minor mode of storytelling in 2011. Theoretically, however, the supernal was a demonstration of a route beyond and between the civic and the sublunar, of a contradiction — between the repression of time and the quotidian hunt for hidden sensations — exceeded in the search for Black Holes, ghost trains, missing time, abduction scenes, out-of-body experiences, and the poetry that links them. What matters most in the supernal is the arc of transmission, and the transition from musicianship to listenership contained therein. Just as investor-politicians, financier-legislators, and doctor-militants spent 2011 working on solutions that would save us from the near-future, the supernal tried to imagine a sui generis correspondence that would stand in for a piratical, utilitarian listenership. At the shop floor of the producer, it felt at times as if this was the site of a secret struggle for pop’s soul.

An interest in symmetry lent the supernal a quantum flavor. The concern for correspondence is also a concern for the symmetry of equivalence: first, at the level of a veridical correspondence between an object and its recording; second, at the level of a veridical correspondence between an object and its transmission. At the level of quantum field theory, disorder is more symmetrical than its opposite, in the sense that it is less dependent upon small variations for uniformity. In other words, it takes a more intense concentration of fluctuating details to disrupt the symmetry of disorder. Listener and musician can engage in a balancing act that mimics the collision between a sound and its recording only if they are understood as appropriate knots in the string of a rapidly-accumulating info-harvest that also constitutes the object’s deformation, which is also the act of its transmission.

In their visions of an overarching model of correspondence between the ear and the unheard, the technique and the sonic, reality and pop, it seems clear that supernalists like Colin Stetson and The Caretaker were trying to tell us stories about the electroweak Higgs mechanism, of the kind scrutinized by CERN researchers seeking to undermine the Standard Model of particle physics. These narratives were animated by the paradox — similar to that underlining research into the Higgs mechanism — that it is only with the introduction of a symmetry-breaking element (i.e., the Higgs boson; Kirby’s source material) that the existence of a vast, mantled symmetry can be demonstrated. It was the attempt to communicate this paradox that closely tied the producers of the supernal to their devices and their sources — Liz Harris’ delay pedals in Grouper; Chris Watson’s microphones; whatever happened to be protruding from Colin Stetson’s face — and left some (A Winged Victory For The Sullen, Deaf Center) loitering at the flinching point where the borders of the supernal and the sublunary meet. This technological mastery opened the door to a transmission predicated on bilateral exchange by a light noncommutation — of the sort operative in the quantum group translation of SUSYviii — wherein an anchorage in external devices distinguished the musician from her music but delivered the producer to her product. Given that commutation here is only possible when the degree of identification between sound and producer is absolute (e.g., the disembodied character of the voice allows authority to occasionally take its place), the supernal and the sublunary shared the disguise of the possible by the impossible insofar as they were all bound to establish an equilibrium in the unstable relation between musicianship and listenership. An interest in reality divided them.

The supernal yearned for a reassessment of the correspondence between reality and pop rejected by the sublunarists as much as it rejected the vandalism of the present by the civic. However, pop ceases to be folklore when it manages to bypass confrontation with reality in favor of a direct correspondence. So while reality returned in The Caretaker’s An Empty Bliss Beyond This World (History Always Favours the Winners) and Chris Watson’s El Tren Fantasma (Touch), it did so only as part of a wider scheme to evade it: in one, reality was a parallel vector signifying elsewhere; in the other, reality was pinioned before a two-way mirror. These are classic narrative/folklore techniques, but what distinguished them in terms of 2011’s pop music is the way in which both albums insisted upon a skewed correspondence between pop (the private) and reality (the public), which nonetheless kept both terms in the game. The civic and the sublunary each favored one term over the other, an abstraction that finds concrete expression in the reliance of both on a residuum of mutation and diversification. For the supernalists, this origin-in-mutation was not left-over but conspicuous by its absence.

The task of pop in 2012 will be to confront, in a suspicious manner, its own understatus within a rich world waking up to the idea that its consumer populace is more reluctant to tolerate the apologetics of power. Nationhood will be crucial if pop is to continue its privileged relation with fashion (it should continue to resist merger bids); attempts to re-think the commodity/information nexus should be watched carefully — pop is far from a craft; no art, its conventions are rarely binding — and centralized distribution initiatives treated with the skepticism they deserve. In the supernal, pop knows that — on the level of the death drive — success and failure are meaningless. This resistance to the law makes for a gallant phenomenology of reaction, obsessed with the minutiae of the present. The utopia of the idle slumbers in a dream of pragmatism: the craftsman’s technique frames a resignation to the false and gloomy notion that things never change, that the present will perpetuate itself ad infinitum.

viii Lest we forget that 2011 was also the year of the OPERA neutrino anomaly.

[Artwork: Raqib Shaw]


[Artwork: Keith Kawaii]

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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