Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Post-Empire For Your Ipod: A Summer Mix Tape in the Spirit of Terror

It's Your Mixtape Baby!

     As some of you might have noted, pomo enfant terrible, Bret Easton Ellis, recently wrote a piece for The Daily Beast on Charlie Sheen's hypervisible meltdown in which the novelist coins the term post-empire to describe a glamorous nihilism emerging in contemporary popular culture.  Post-empire is a concept worth holding onto and exploring in more detail, and what better way to explore this Post-Imperial structure of feeling than by giving my fellow spuds an illustrative mixtape? 

     Now, before we launch into the tunes, some explanations are in order.  First, the songs that follow don't really exemplify Post-Empire as Ellis defines it.  If you want a mixtape exemplifying Post-Empire, merely sit down with your TV and flip back and forth between whatever music channels you have.  Properly Post-Imperial music would include the likes of Ke$ha, Wiz Khalifa, Katy Perry and Lady Gaga, and providing you with a mixtape of such sonic residue would be, at the very least, a second order redundancy.  So, this mixtape features songs about rather than of Post-Empire.

     This, however, leads to a second caveat:  the very concept of Post-Empire tends to efface any distinction between about and of.  With Post-Empire, Ellis names the aesthetic of profound nihilism at work in his own fiction.  The conundrum of nihilism is that, by affirming nothing, you risk affirming everything, albeit with a cynical smirk.  Indeed, one might ask whether Ellis himself critiques or contributes to the bourgeois culture depicted in his novels.  For example, is American Psycho "about" or "part of" the Bruegelian landscape of bloodshed and conspicuous (cannibalistic) consumption that drools forth on its pages?  In a sort of negative realism, Post Imperial representation tend to give way to affirmation.  Of course, "postmodern" would do just fine as a term for this crisis of critical distance, but Ellis's notion of post-empire, like his fiction, emphasizes the latent brutality of this aesthetic blankness.  Postmodern is Andy Warhol's factory churning out silk-screens; Post-Empire, on the other hand, is Warhol and Co. merrily dining on the mutilated corpses of pre-pubescent undocumented day laborers brought into the factory make said silkscreens.  Perhaps merely a difference of degree, but a difference nonetheless.  Thus, the songs that follow are meant to capture a sort of blank violence that is more Post-Imperial than postmodern, the difference being the violence.

     Thirdly, like postmodern, Post-Imperial doesn't necessarily denote periodic difference.  We were not once imperial and now post-imperial.  The difference is one of aesthetics rather than time period.  This blank, smiley-face nihilism of Post-Empire has been around at least since Reagan's morning in America.  Indeed, the entire career of Stanley Kubrick, excepting perhaps 2001:  A Space Odyssey but especially A Clockwork Orange and Full Metal Jacket, can be seen as it least teetering on the aesthetic precipice separating Empire from Post-Empire.  So this is certainly not a new structure of feeling.  Thus, not all of the songs on this mixtape are completely new.

    Finally, however, the "war on terror" and our concurrent sentiment of "tolerance-chic" have brought Post-Imperial nihilism into sharp relief.  Indeed, what could be more Post-Imperial than our joyful celebration of bin Laden's death?  Vacuous, excessive, implicitly (or sometimes downright explicitly) brutal -our celebration captures the extent to which the war on terror is Post-Imperial.  Maureen Dowd's recent op-ed in The New York Times, "Killing Evil Doesn't Make Us Evil," reflects vividly the gleeful arrogance of Post-Empire.  Claiming "I want memory, and justice, and revenge" and concluding that "morally and operationally, this was counterterrorism at its finest," Dowd sounds exactly like one of the melancholic supermodel/terrorists of Ellis's Glamorama.  Like the main character of the novel, Dowd flaunts her vapid and callous tautologies, quipping, "I leave it to subtler minds to parse the distinction between what is just and what is justified."  And her conclusion, "We have nothing to apologize for" is practically the thesis statement of Ellis's fiction, the only difference being that Ellis and his fictional characters appear a bit more disturbed by this surrender to passive nihilism then does Dowd.  The point being, the war on terror is sooooo Post-Empire dude.  It's rock and roll baby.  Lock and load.  Fuck those subtler minds.  Git 'er done.  Spare me.

     So, without further ado, plug up your skull with your earpegs and prepare for Bad Penny's summer tour of sonic malaise.  As you listen, perhaps envision roadside bombs exploding, U.S. military police forcing "enemy combatants" to masturbate, shiny happy people congregating in Time Square to celebrate the splattering of Osama's brains, Mickey Mouse patting a toe-headed child on the ass, Katy Perry stuffing kittens down the throat of a boy with cerebral palsy, Bono and the Edge performing "enhanced interrogation techniques" on sex-trafficked Cambodian girls, and. . . lulz cats.     

1)  Nine Inch Nails:  "Capital G"

     On Year Zero, Trent Reznor's brand of industrial cynicism found a new political edge.  "Capital G" encapsulates what might be called a crisis of irony indicative of post-empire.  When Reznor snarls "I'm sick of hearing about the haves and the have nots.  Have some personal responsibility" is he parodying or affirming American arrogance and selfishness?  One could imagine some jocko-homo meathead fratfuck pumping his fist and singing these lyrics as the beat thumps from his daddy's hummer just as easily as one can imagine some liberal, vegan hipster (like me) chanting along with an ironic sneer.  As Year Zero announces, it doesn't fucking matter how you "take it" as long as you take it.  Hell, Reznor already anticipated post-empire back in 94, on The Downward Spiral when he sang a brutally honest and heartfelt love song to the pigs.  

2) Suicide:  "Station Station"

     Of course, long before Reznor churned out his first slice of post-imperial wax, Alan Vega and Martin Rev - under the moniker Suicide - were fusing industrial noise with an uncompromisingly bleak picture.  While Suicide dropped most of their horror in the early seventies and late eighties, 9/11 resurrected the duo for 2002's American Supreme, a sonic landscape of New York after the "terrorist" attacks.  Since then, frontman Vega has become something of a rock poet of the terror apocalypse.  Completely post-empire, Vega rarely judges the voices of fascism, greed and hatred that chatter on the streets of empire's metropolises.  Rather, he embodies these voices in his characteristic schizoid yelps, howls and growls.  Admittedly, there is something very empire about his lament that "there was a time when you could dream," but even these lines sound like some lost recording unearthed from the rubble.  That is, even the nostalgia here seems housed in an archive and almost droned out by distorted synths and electronic drums.  But, then again, post-empire is not un-nostalgic to begin with.

3)  Pig Destroyer:  "Deathtripper"

       Grindcore has an intimate relationship with post-empire.  With roots in hardcore punk and crust-punk, grind has always referenced globalization.  Arguably the first grindcore album, Napalm Death's Scum (1987), opens with the the chant "Multinational corporations/ genocide of the starving nations" and featured an album cover depicting CEOs on top of a mountain of skulls along with logos from major corporations.  The preachy tone of Napalm, however, still suggests an empire morality especially when compared to more contemporary grindcore such as Agoraphobic Nosebleed, Cephalic Carnage and Pig Destroyer.  Indeed, if there were a sonic equivalent to Ellis's American Psycho and Glamorama, it would be contemporary grindcore.  Like these novels, grind is meticulously composed, brutally repetitious and senselessly violent.  The aesthetic works to achieve a pure affective impact, stripped of all content.  Indeed, the lyrics to the above track - "I hold your hands in mine/ the rest of you is scattered all over/ your rib cage is open like a great white's jaws/ your legs look so sexy out of context" - are both brutally violent yet abstract.  The legs aren't amputated; they are "out of context."  Violence bleeds into pure abstraction especially when considering that these lyrics are themselves basically unintelligible on the track.  Grindcore then, and especially Pig Destroyer, are the sound of a generation whose minds have been numbed by interweb war porn.

4)  Dead Kennedys:  "Kill the Poor"

     Arguably, Jello Biafra is still very empire insofar as his political satire reflects someone who still cares very much about humanity.  On songs like "Kill the Poor," "Soup is Good Food" and "Holiday in Cambodia," however, Jello's satire reaches a level of ghoulishness and glee that tips into post-empire.  Indeed, one live performance of "Holiday in Cambodia" ends with Jello leaping into the crowd as he screams "Pol Pot."  It is difficult to tell, at this point, whether or not jouissance has taken over satirical critique, and this not-so-delicate slamdance between socially-conscious satire and anti-social revery is what makes The Dead Kennedys timeless masters of the post-empire aesthetic.  Nowhere is this master craftsmanship more vivid than on "Kill the Poor."

 5)  Godflesh:  Slavestate

     In many ways, Justin Broadrick's departure from Napalm Death and founding of Godflesh amounts to a shift from empire to post-empire.  While the grind aesthetic of Napalm is certainly louder, faster and less danceable than Godflesh, the industrial noise of Godflesh bespeaks a much more bleak and apathetic worldview than anything found on Napalm albums or really on many grindcore albums period.  While globalization is still a political issue for Napalm, it becomes a metaphysical condition for Godflesh.  In a much more troubling way then Reznor could ever imagine, Broadrick seems to get off on absolute subjugation.  Songs such as "Like Rats," "Head Dirt," and "Anything is Mine" blend eroticism, brutality and a bizarre spirituality with hammering drum machines and spastic baselines.  Not unlike Cormac McCarthy, Broadrick gives us a strangely beautiful, apocalyptic, post-imperial vision.

6)  Death Grips: "Blood Creepin"

      Who the fuck knows what Death Grips is?  A project began by mathcore drummer Zach Hill and some of his friends, the avant-noise rap aggression of the debut album, "Exmilitary" (!) sounds like sonic sheet-metal scavenged from the scrapyard of hip hop and punk long after pop culture has descended into a Thunderdome future.   The barked lyrics recall everything from MOP thug-style to Black Flag-esque alienation and hostility.  In a sense, Death Grips returns us to the digital noise and lyrical sniper-fire of Suicide but now with a post-Wu Tang funk.  It's too soon to pigeonhole Death Grips or to decide what the world-view of the band might be, but it certainly seems adequately Post-Imperial. 

7)  Kanye West:  "Monster"

I've already blogged extensively on this track and it's significance to our current cultural moment.  Suffice to say, with "Monster" Kanye, Jay, and Minaj have perfected post-imperial hip hop.  

8)  Ministry:  "The Land of Rape and Honey"

So you might notice that this mixtape consists of large amount of 80s-90s industrial music.  I haven't really worked out precisely why that is.  Perhaps, more than any other subgenre of pop music, Wax Trax era industrial music captured the amalgam of cynicism, hedonism and brutality that is the post-empire pose.  Without a doubt, the jackhammer sounds of Al Jorgensen and Ministry resonate with the main tenants of post-empire, especially on the earlier albums.  Al's lyrics and videos during this period depict a vile and venomous world of Bush I, soaked in greed, hypocrisy and heroin, and with respect to this world, Uncle Al casts no moralistic judgements; he merely reads the news.  Much like the Dead Kennedys, Ministry does an exhilarating tight rope act, balancing between the satirical stance of empire and the orgiastic wallowing of post-empire.  In fact, what makes the last few Ministry albums fail is that Al gets a bit too preachy.  He starts to sound a bit too much like a moralizing liberal in his satirical critique of Bush II.  Or maybe the problem was something much more simple.  Al just stopped doing Horse.  Give me the old Ministry;  the Ministry who got busted in K-Mart at two o'clock in the morning for heroin possession.

9)  Swans: "Power for Power"

As a young lad, standing upon the stage with his pale body clad only in a make-shift loin cloth, like a cross between Jesus Christ and Jeffery Dahmer, chanting "stick a knife in me" over and over again for twelve minutes backed by a slamming and trudging industrial soundtrack, M. Gira understood more than a little about post-empire.  He understood that all Americans, whether secretly or openly, whether guiltily or proudly, are in love with the nightmare of torture and domination they have unleashed upon the planet.  I remember being mortified when I first heard Swans, and it was the kind of mortification that can only be evoked by a confrontation with a truth.  This is why the songs of early Swans consist only of perhaps ten words and four notes repeated over and over again for well over ten minutes.  Post-empire is tautological and perpetual.  It doesn't make sense but instead imposes its nonsense directly onto the body.  It's like fucking.  It's stupid and repetitious and undeniable and defiant of any moral code.   

10)  Tyler the Creator "Bastard/Seven"
Okay, the first mistake was giving a wildly talented, overly ambitious, incredibly arrogant and utterly bleak seventeen-year-old a microphone.  Odd Future is the anti-It-Gets-Better.  What currently irritates folks about this group isn't the use of homophobic slurs but instead the self-conscious embodiment of everything American culture secretly hates about young people (and is secretly afraid of about black people).  Glee be damned, high school is ground zero for post empire, and Odd Future constantly remind us of this unpleasant fact.  Thus, their presence in our current tolerance-chic climate is Nietzschean in its untimeliness, and the current backlash against the group reveals a deep-seated ressentiment at the heart of our feel-good multiculturalism.  In a sense, "growing up" has always meant learning to engage in bullshit fantasies about how "people are really good inside" and how "if you believe in yourself, you can be anything" and how "a big hug can make all the difference."  We grow up and learn how to be moralizing, Imperial liberals.  But don't worry, Odd Future is only to eager to remind us that, to quote Whitney Houston, the children are the future, and the future is post-imperial.

Swag to that, spuds!

No comments:

Post a Comment