Contenu et analyse du documentaire
Certains des postulats de ce documentaire sont ainsi pour le moins contestables. Je pense ici à l’analyse développée sur les singles, un format qui serait défendu par les artistes eux-mêmes, ce dont je doute tant leur commercialité semble plus profiter aux labels. Je pense surtout au fait que le rock’n’roll est effectivement une traduction de l’individualisme, ce que je ne suis pas certain de considérer comme étant contestable, contrairement à la position par Ian Svenonius.
La détestation des membres de certains des plus grands groupes de l’histoire ne les a jamais empêché de produire quelques mélodies sensationnelles. Or, rien ne se rapproche plus d’une expérience collective que la mélodie. Pour cause, la mélodie est le seul élément d’un morceau qui nécessite la participation de plusieurs des membres du groupe. Pourtant, seule l’individualité (l’ensemble de plusieurs d’entre elles) permet sa réalisation. Ainsi les Beatles ont-ils créé des mélodies inoubliables sur leur album Abbey Road, le tout malgré une ambiance pour le moins… pesante. Le fait est que le rock’n’roll est une affaire d’individu et d’individualisme, et qu’on l’aime comme ça.
En réalité, il me semble que trop penser le groupe comme une entité collective soit une erreur. Les membres du groupe n’ont pas toujours leur place, un leader doit guider ce dernier pour ne pas qu’il s’encombre des bons sentiments qui poussent à permettre à chacun de ses musiciens de constamment jouer une part égale. Un groupe qui se perçoit trop comme un collectif (communiste) où chacun a sa part de mérite est un groupe qui tend vers l’uniformisation : le batteur voudra jouer sur chaque morceau, le guitariste voudra ses solos, le bassiste réclamera des lignes permanentes… Et pourtant, l’écoute des meilleurs album révèlent souvent à quel point il est bon qu’un leader impose sa marque, qu’il sacrifie certains éléments au bénéfice d’autres. L’écoute du dernier albums des Oh Sees révèle précisément cela : Dwyer est le maestro et tous les instruments ne sont pas toujours délivrés avec la même insistance.
Le groupe vécu comme expérience communiste est donc un l’échec – i.e. parce qu’il tend à sa banalisation. C’est d’autant plus vrai que, d’une façon globale, le groupe est un échec en devenir. Un seul exemple : cherchez à identifier les groupes qui, après 10 années d’existence, ont sorti un album meilleur que ce qu’ils avaient sorti jusqu’alors. Le fait est que le groupe est intrinsèquement voué à sa disparition. Le groupe est en cela l’ultime symbole du système capitaliste. Il peut laisser sa marque sur un genre, mais il laissera toujours sa place sur scène à une formation plus jeune.
Là se trouve mes désaccords avec le documentaire de Ian Svenonius. Il n’en demeure pas moins qu’un court-métrage qui pousse à la réflexion est une chose très rare qui doit être chéri et appréciée pour ce qu’elle est. Pour ça et pour le reste, mes salutations éternelles au “sassiest boy in America”.
With today’s article, we will have the opportunity to proceed to a slightly different work from what Still in Rock usually offers: the goal here is to take a documentary as a pretext to a so-called philosophical analysis of rock’n’roll. This documentary is made by Ian Svenonius, ex-leader of Nation of Ulysses, the Make-Up, and, more recently, Chain & The Gang. And as I have said many times, Ian Svenonius is also one of the great thinkers in music. He has published three books that I would recommend a thousand times: The Psychic Soviet, Supernatural Strategies for Making a Rock’n’Roll Group, and Censorship Now!!.
The interviews he gives to the press (link) are as legendary as those he conducts (link). And here he embarks on movie making, with his first short film as a director: What Is A Group?. As much as I’m not used to write about films, it seemed essential for me to evoke this one, for one good reason: there’s quite a lot to say.
The movie is introduced by a dialog between two aliens that describe what a music album is. Up to this point, everything’s fine. Then comes the description of a music band: the responsible unit of the recording of an album, the association of under-class individuals who recreate, at a lower scale, the task repartition imposed by industrial capitalism. Everyone has his own position, everyone has his own role.
That’s when we land on Earth, during a performance by Ian Svenonius himself (with Mary Tomony on the guitar). Dressed in a suit only he knows the tailor’s address, he is backing a band that will promptly show their disagreement on the structure of the song they’re playing. That’s all it took to evoke all the components of a song, and then to pay tribute to all the third parties that work on an album. The two alien girls especially mention the producer: what’s his role? Two-part answer: supervising the technical aspects, and playing an insider role, against which the group is going to build itself. The producer is a “science ambassador” against which the band continuously struggles in search of its fantasy.
He goes further afterwards: the band is a group composed of “magical characters”, elected to represent the struggle of lower social classes. All in all, the group represents the innocence, and for good reason: most of the work composed by the band is free, because it is infantilized. When the band is working, we say that they are “playing”, like a child with a toy.
That’s when Kid Congo appears, portraying a producer that dictates the way the group must “arrange” its track: according to thousands of social conventions that match with what the listener wants to hear. That’s where the shoe pinches: when Ian Svenonius’ documentary presses right where it hurts: the producers (and more generally, the third parties) often represent the upper social class that tries to conform the bands to what generates profit. What’s the worst in all of this? The bands accept this hierarchy and that method. They could do things another way, but that’s a thing Ian Svenonius does not tell.
Then comes the definition of a “single”. His position is limpid: the single format is defended by a few pervert characters who work on its survival against the attempts of destruction perpetrated by the music industry. He specifies: the 7-inch single consists in two tracks that are generally opposed: one is fast, the other is slow. It allows the reconciliation of two opposites in a single entity. Then, describing the physical object, the two aliens note that humans look very concerned about having their name mentioned. Ouch. And Ian puts forward the argument of worship that vinyl records are subjected to, one of the unavoidable aspects of capitalism that transpose a sexual desire towards an inanimate object, in this case a 7” disc. Welcome to the tyranny of the object before the individual. After all, the need to get one’s name written on an object answers for a truly primary need: didn’t they write their name on the flints they found, at the time…?
The documentary then focuses on the recording process, in which he underlines a form of amateurism from the producer. Only one thing matters: loudness, the heaviness of the song. Why? The competition between bands leads to a race to determine who the most powerful is. In the end, we adjust the drums, the bass, the voice… to the maximum.
The two aliens then wonder “What’s the point?” One replies to the other: rock’n’roll is a production of capitalism, because it is disorganized per se. Rock’n’roll is an upper-class artistic form based on individualism. This artistic production is distributed by the labels, capitalists who invested their money into the exploitation of under-class dropouts, in other words: artists. Labels need success from the records to make profit.
But what is it that makes an album meet success? “Bribery and massive hypnosis”, Ian Svenonius answers. The documentary sends us into a meeting in one of these labels, where capitalist members have a discussion about Chain & the Gang’s new album. Only one question stands there: do they match the audience’s expectations? No, then it’s a rejection. Unless… Unless the label manages to make the group fail, a will they make no secret of, since the bands that don’t meet success are sentenced to death. It is unavoidable: they all end up disappearing.
The aliens then draw conclusions: cannibalism is preferable to the current functioning of the music industry. Still, they have to watch the planet collapse under the weight of capitalism, and indirectly under rock’n’roll.
In favor of individualism in rock’n’roll
You’ll have understood it by now, Ian Svenonius doesn’t lack ideas. His criticism of capitalism, in that the music industry leaves so much control to the producer that he is left free to dictate how the band must play, is a well-known problem, theorized and labeled into “The Blank Generation” (read our interview with Bret Easton Ellis on this subject). There lays a painful truth that -Heaven forbid- remains exclusive to the major labels. We have hardly ever seen an indie label stick its nose into the band’s music. Most of them want a turnkey music, ready to be pressed. And it’s fine as it is, since this process helps respecting the artistic identity of the group. Ian is right about this point, but that doesn’t mean the capitalistic methods from the bands themselves must be rejected.
Thus, some of the positions in this documentary are quite questionable. I am especially thinking of the analysis developed on singles, a format that is supposedly supported by artists themselves, which I doubt since their commercial potential seems to benefit the labels. Above all, I am thinking that rock’n’roll is indeed a translation of individualism, which, unlike Ian Svenonius, I don’t necessarily picture as something questionable.
It seems to me that individual achievement is precisely what we love in rock’n’roll: a heroic and personified aspect. Rock’n’roll is a translation of what makes a capitalist system provoke individual exploitation, hence its savage and special force. It is useless to eulogize a band’s cohesion, since it’s something we cannot hear. A rock’n’roll band is not a sports team. The leader can be as much hated as the others without any kind of negative impact on the creation process.
Hatred between members of some of the greatest bands in History has never prevented them to create sensational melodies. Yet, nothing is closest to a collective experiment than melody. Indeed, the melody is the only part of a song that needs the involvement of several members of the group. Yet, only individuality (a sum of several of these) enables its achievement. That’s how The Beatles created unforgettable melodies on Abbey Road, despite an oppressive atmosphere, to say the least. The fact remains that rock’n’roll is a matter of individuals and individualism, and we love it this way.
Capitalism and communism in terms of rock’n’roll
It actually seems to me that overthinking a music band as a collective entity is a mistake. Members of a band are not always at their right place, a leader must lead the said band so that he isn’t burdened by the good feelings that lead each musician to play an equal part. A band that sees itself as a collective (communist) where everyone has its share of merit is a band that tends to standardization: the drummer will want to play on every track, the guitarist will want his solos, the bassist will claim permanent lines… And yet, listening to the best albums shows how good it is that a leader imposes his rules, that he sacrifices some elements against others. Thee Oh Sees’ latest albums shows it: Dwyer is the maestro, and the instruments are not all delivered with the same consistency.
The music band felt as a communist experiment is a failure – i.e. it tends to its own trivialization. It’s all the more true that, in a general way, a band is a failure to come. One example: try finding bands that, after 10 years of existence, have released a better album than what they made before. The reality is that a band is meant to disappear. This is how the group is a symbol of the capitalist system. It can leave its mark on a music style, but it will always make way to a younger band in the spotlight.
There lay my disagreements about Ian Svenonius’ documentary. It’s still worth pointing out that a short movie that pushes to think is so uncommon that it has to be cherished and respected as it is. For this and everything else, I send my warmest greetings to the “sassiest boy in America”.