Wednesday, July 18, 2007

GRUNGE, CHRISTIANITY AND NORMATIVITY, Part 1

My friend Michael Fletcher,a philosopher currently working on his dissertation on Kant's aesthetics, sent this article on Grunge and Christianity several months ago. This is a continuation of his thoughts on Kurt Cobain which I posted in January. This is part 1 of what will be a three or four part post.LEK

Comparisons between my grunge sensibility and my philosophical sensitivities have been more or less inarticulate, but are things as they appear? Certainly the official Kurt denounced pretense and inauthenticity of self-expression in rock, and I think that it's no stretch that the same conviction can be seen manifested in other areas of his life. The success of Nirvana posed a problem for Kurt and other alt-rockers who sincerely identified with what Kurt called "the Punk ethic". The ethic, so far as I know, has never really been made explicit. I have attempted to do so in a number of letters to Ed. I've written to BAM and CSULB's paper back in the later nineties, but there's no way to know if there's a general consensus concerning it.

At any rate, there seems to be no reason especially for skepticism concerning Kurt's general attitude about the success of his band. I think that you are right on about the attitude he had, and it is well-documented in most corporate rockzines and in the The Nirvana Companion. Like every artist who defines himself or herself as "indie" there's an expectation to uphold some general renunciation of success. And the reason is this: that material success is more or less confusedly identified as 'selling out', which can only mean that it is more or less confusedly seen as a sufficient condition for inauthentic self-expression, the particular manifestation of which is to allow one's creative impulses to be inappropriately influenced by distortional influences (other than sonic distortion or reverb, however.)

But the problem is that, though material success is sometimes indicative of that, it isn't always. As any thirteen year old can point out, just because a band gets famous and its members make alot of money doesn't mean that the band's musical expression is not flowing from the artist, undistorted. (Well putting it that way makes the thirteen year old sound like a Putnam at the same age.) But the point is that street credibility becomes identified with a distinguishing mark that can be used to decide whether a band or artist has it. That mark is poverty or obscurity. The attempt to codify behaviourally the trappings of sincerity had other historical instantiations, most notably in the history of Christianity. To be thought truly Christ like, one had to be poor, or take a vow of poverty, and this was manifested in a number of ridiculous ways through out the history of monasticism. In order to convince others and themselves of their sincerity, men would place themselves under extreme voluntary hardship--social isolation or fasting--so as to get the prestige associated with being devout.

In indie rock culture, street credibility, or what passes for it, is essentially only a form of philistinism. And, I have long felt that it leads to what I call the paradox of nonconformity. Rock artists stipulate that, to be a true rock artist, you have to be a nonconformist. But what counts as nonconformist behaviour is necessarily defined in relation to prevailing social mores, the status quo. Thus, for some particular rock artist to be counted among the class of 'True Rock Artists' that artist has to conform to whatever is regarded by some prevailing community of rock artists as nonconformative behaviour. Thus in the attempt to be a nonconformist, one has to conform; hence the paradox of conformity.

I've never come across a statement of that paradox in Rock zines that I've read, which is merely anecdotal evidence that it hasn't been made therein. But I have seen it lurking more or less implicitly in statements of interviews of rock artists. Courtney Love, to name one such artist, has implied some implicit awareness of the paradox of conformity when she said that integrity is always doing what's in your heart. (This is a paraphrase.) However, in a letter to BAM, which took up half a page, I criticized Love as a "beautiful bandwagoner" because of that confused conception of integrity. On Love's conception, it would be impossible for anyone to ever be inauthentic because any conviction one had, so long as it was one you sincerely felt, would count as being 'from the heart' no less than any other conviction. But the problem with this view is that you can't define integrity AS YOU GO; you can't define integrity as a helter-skelter of attitudes about things, some of which are conflictual.

So for example, you can't (as Love has) say that you are a punk rocker AND be a Hollywood Starlet who changes her tune for accolade. Love's combination of being a grunge rocker and frontwoman of Hole with her Hollywood identity seems inconsistent. It would be like trying to identify with Christ while retaining an attitude in which one loves money and wealth and fame over other things, like the welfare of others.

If what I have argued above goes through, material success does not necessarily mean that one's artistic production is inauthentic. And this is correct. If at all one's intention is to create artistic productions that make one a lot of money and to not make other artistic creations because they don't produce cash, then one is not being inauthentic when one signs a major label and allows one's artistic creations to be determined in exactly the same way that the cover of Nevermind illustrates. In this case one cannot sell out because one never had any other intention but to make money and to use one's talents to do that.