Monday, 3 August 2009

Pop is an Empty Signifier

Tom Ewing's recent 'poptimist' column in Pitchfork might be seen as a kind of requiem for the pop charts, bearing a certain nostalgia for a time when the pop charts was a place of dispute and surprise encounters, a pitch for "fighting and flirting." The charts were good, claims Ewing, not so much when there happened to be lots of good records in the Top Ten, but at times like the late eighties in Britain, "when a lot of different people's ideas of good music had to jockey for position." This, in stark contrast to today, when the charts are of less and less significance, and strained record label marketing budgets have led directly to a higher concentration of sales for fewer and fewer number of the biggest acts (to quote economist Will Page, in direct contradiction to Chris Anderson's 'Long Tail', "If Top of the Pops still existed, it would feature the top 14, not top 40."). Perhaps, even before the digital take-over of music, 1997 was in pop what 1979 in politics. As 1979, by installing the Thatcher-Major-Blair-Brown years, reduced the political landscape to the post-political non-choice between two equally unappealing parties, 1997 gave us Blur vs. Oasis. Not only does Ewing's piece suggest a kind of strange Reithianism (for Lord Reith would doubtless have been less approving of the Reynolds Girls) in which Radio One's Top 40 rundown led you to what you didn't know you liked, but it also suggests a potential application of the neo-Gramscian theories of Ernesto Laclau to thinking about pop music. Thus, like the category of 'the popular' in politics, we might say that pop music is "an ontological and not an ontic category." The meaning of 'Pop' is not to be found in any of its specific content, which has proved it can easily embrace tropes from genres as diverse as reggae, heavy metal, techno and ballads, but rather in a particular "mode of articulation." Pop acts as an empty signifier, a site of the struggle, on the part of competing sounds and styles, for hegemony. Following Laclau, the pop terrain thus sets up a kind of equivalential chain amongst these sounds and styles, which both enriches, by broadening their address, opening up access to the universal, and impoverishes, by weakening the bond with the particular content from which it derives (one could perhaps cite Bob Marley's Catch a Fire, or No Doubt's Tragic Kingdom as records that, in granting their artists coveted crossover success, simultaneously divorced them from their own 'roots'). In recent years, pop's chain of equivalencies have largely broken down and been subverted by the immediate satisfaction of all particular demands - the presence of all music available at once and for free creates a post-pop, correlative to the post-political administration of the Third Way.