Thursday, June 15, 2017

The Death of the (Song) Author


It is a commonplace of Deconstructionist literary theory: Roland Barthes' signature piece, The Death of the Author, awakened readers to the idea that the cult of literary authorship is a partly fallacious one. We create the book, as we read it; readers are authors, too. Why shouldn't this apply to popular music? One of my late conclusions about the popular song is this: popular music, as it rings down the ages, is meant to be completely anonymous. Songs get passed from generation to generation in an anonymous fashion, and cults of personalities around pop stars can never work over long periods of time, for a simple reason (Barthes' literary rationale is more complex): what popular music is, is accessible, as pop songs are relatively easy to play and write, and many people can write good popular music. There's no need for it to be individualized, because so many individuals are competent songwriters. Pop music is meant to just float. If you let, for example, the Stones better albums ring down the proverbial ages for a period of time, what the Stones need to be is a nebulous, ambiguous entity, with the music at the front. Coffee table books, trade journals, stooge criticism, and large media reputations need not apply. No one needs to know the names Mick and Keith: for the Stones best music to survive, there can be no Mick and Keith. To watch the Stones float, watch how their songs and albums take up space, as they remain anonymous. The spirit of totalized anonymity which animates the best popular music is ready to take over, one feels, in 2017, and (I think) this is for the best.

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