28
Feb 01

Americana In Pieces

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HANNAH MARCUS – Black Hole Sun

INTRODUCTION

I was attracted to this album by a clever letter that Ms. Marcus wrote to Pitchfork, in response to a reviewer who was clearly trying to emulate Richard Meltzer and review albums only by their covers — except that this was hardly a “fuck you” to the major labels, as he was doing it with good product from small, quality, indie labels. Anyway, I knew that I was dealing with a smart and self-aware character, which meant that the album would be interesting if nothing else. But what Black Hole Heaven did was remind me of a genre of music I had given up on, and lend it a new lease on life.

This genre being Americana. And this project, then tying in with the coincidence of much recent thought on “America” (or as Mailer called it, “The Great Bitch” — he called lots of things that, though) also helps me get together my thoughts in a period where I’ve watched numerous westerns, listened to all sorts of early folk, country, and blues, and then just seen Oh, Brother, Where Art Thou, all in a relatively short span of time. (The last, as with all Coen brothers films, telling me nothing new, but throwing all the old stuff into an entertaining mix. Folk culture – social basis + the emptiness of smug artists = epic which is not in past, but rather outside time and meaning altogether?)

And anyway, this is an exercise in methodology — of throwing concepts at an album and seeing which stick, seeing whether I learn about the album, about the concepts, both, or neither.

GENRE

In a general sense, Marcus seems to be approaching post-punk music from a folkie background. This is meant in the sense of adopting an ethos, but using an existing toolset to capture this ethos. Distinct and contrary is the Ani diFranco approach of adopting stylistic measures (hello ska! goodbye contents of my stomach!) while leaving the ethos to rot. Punk is perhaps too limiting a term. We approach what Bakhtin would term “novelization” which is the remaking of genre (in this case folk) and incorporative spirit. Which had at a certain point been the point of all alt-country for me.

As a side note, the term Americana is perhaps more appropriate, because what we are encountering is not counter-Nashville, but almost parallel to Nashville, and perhaps would carry on as it does had Nashville never existed. Americana is more general as well, because it seems to encompass an ethos and attitude towards America, and a self-consciousness of this attitude. DeLillo’s first novel was aptly named Americana for just this reason, as a reworking of traditional narrative device (in this case the search for the self — bildungsroman) over a fragmented and hollow (modernized) social reality.

Returning to topic, at a certain point I felt that the innovative spirit of Americana, dealt with below, had departed for other climes. That there were a certain number of tropes which could be resurrected and reborn, but the general abandonment of forward looking work in favor of endless rehash and reification of tradition had killed the genre. This was compounded by the tendency of this genre to disguise its innovation behind a reclamation of tradition, which left the ever-present danger of tradition swallowing the whole thing back up.

MORE GENERALLY

The nature of art is in constant formal innovation and incorporativity, because the role of art is to challenge abstractions which have been socially reified. In other words, art must move, like a shark, or die. We face in this incorporativity an evolution driven by the relation between structural form and elemental composition. Changes in one drive changes in the other — overall subordinated by the relationship of the work to itself, which is defined by its form. Form in turn is what Bakhtin would term “chronotope” — the resolution of narrative with sequence of time and place — and Bakhtin argues that “chronotope” is the basis of genre. Which would just be a fancy way of saying that art defies genre, except that the deeper analysis lets us describe a particular genre.

So Hannah Marcus’ songs have the structure of folk songs, in the way they capture place and time as static, with the movement of language driving an event already unfolded — retrospective rather than immediate, and with lyrics driving song structure itself, song peaks coinciding with emotionally affective rather than narratively significant points. This chronotopic structure remains in place, thus far. However, the production and stylistic innovations lead to an album-wide arc and cohesion which, if Marcus continues along this path, will have to be reflected on the level of individual songs. This has already begun, approaching dissolution, in the most produced songs, into ambience.

Because a work of art is, by nature, viewed as a unity, the point of innovation is whether the work’s attitude towards itself calls into question the unity of the world it seeks to represent, or whether it, by representing a particular subset of the world, reifies that false unity. Deconstruction fails by asserting the disunity of a work, neglecting the subordination of disjoint elements into an artistic whole, with a consistent overall attitude towards itself, and thus denying the very existence of art as a meaningful term — by bringing disjoint art into a disjoint world, all abstractions cease to be useful.

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