I sometimes think that popular music criticism – taking popular music very broadly as a whole, and the criticism of popular music as something distinct from the criticism of classical music (a distinction which generally holds strong, in spite of a number of crossover artists or artists whose music draws from and fits alongside classical composers and compositions) – lacks critical and theoretical terms by which the art concerned may be discussed. Artists are frequently placed within movements, whether on a musical basis or, increasingly, because they are perceived to be part of some other aesthetic or media group or trend (take, for instance, the suitably nebulous notion of ‘tumblr-wave’); their music is discussed in terms of genre, and the deviation from and amalgamation of established genres; and production techniques and the fidelity of recordings may also receive mention. Yet there are relatively few terms which seem to seek to analyse what popular music is doing in the same way that theoretical terms abound in and are a fundamental part of literary criticism.
Typical of many, I first came to really know the music of Ariel Pink through Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti’s 2010 album, Before Today; which was one of my favourite albums of that year and served as encouragement towards listening to more of Pink’s music. Pink and his band’s latest album, Mature Themes, likewise became one of my favourite and most listened to albums of the past year. A couple of months ago, I attended their concert on the back of the album at the Melkweg in Amsterdam, and profoundly enjoyed it; and in contemplating its various aspects – from Geneva Jacuzzi’s bold and detached, highly performative opening act; to Pink’s presentation, singing through the first several songs from the steps at the rear of the stage, his back to the audience, his face transmitted in close-up via Jacuzzi’s video-camera; to the music itself – I thought about Bakhtin’s concept of heteroglossia and feel that it serves well to describe the structure and the matter of Pink’s compositions.
Heteroglossia is defined by Bakhtin as ‘another’s speech in another’s language, serving to express authorial intentions but in a refracted way’. It translates literally from the Russian, разноречие (‘raznorechie’), as ‘different-speech-ness’. Applied by Bakhtin primarily within the realm of literature, it essentially defines the way in which all language, in use, draws sometimes explicitly and deliberately, but always implicitly from each of its previous uses, thereby bearing numerous possible meanings and intentions and leading in innumerable directions. It explains that whenever we speak or write, our words carry with them the voices and motivations of other people and other groups, and that meaning is therefore uncertain and contested.
Bakhtin opposes heteroglossia to unitary langage, which is described as centripetal rather than centrifugal (that is, directed towards the centre rather than moving outwards and away from it), and which attempts towards ‘guaranteeing a certain maximum of mutual understanding and crystalizing into a real, though still relative, unity’. The utterance is the core expressive unit wherein the opposition between unitary language and heteroglossia plays out. Thus every utterance is defined as a ‘contradiction-ridden, tension-filled unity’, and:
‘The processes of centralization and decentralization, of unification and disunification, intersect in the utterance; the utterance not only answers the requirements of its own language as an individualized embodiment of a speech act, but it answers the requirements of heteroglossia as well; it is in fact an active participant in such speech diversity.’
Ariel Pink’s music is heteroglossia in musical form. It is music as ‘contradiction-ridden, tension-filled unity’. The work of few other musicians embodies within it so many competing voices, and where there do appear areas of potential conflict – be they in questioning, conversational or argumentative lyrics, or in the music, in the use of samples to take one possible instance – they tend to be subsumed by the artist’s central presence, constituting in the end a singular musical statement and presenting a coherent point of view. Likewise, where other artists utilise vocal harmonies, the effect, and the affect, is often something communal. By contrast, the multitude of voices in Ariel Pink’s music are never subsumed.
Pink’s music is heteroglossic primarily on the level of individual songs, where Pink’s voice often achieves remarkable, sudden and layered shifts in pitch and tone (a facet of his singing which was particularly apparent live); and where seemingly disassociated lines are interspersed or throwaway expressions interrupt or addend that narrative provided by the verse. ‘Pink Slime’ features a combination of spoken English and spoken Spanish, singing in two distinct pitches – with backing which alternately corresponds to and complements Pink’s vocals, mumbles, repeats the title, or else expresses in ‘uhs’ and ‘ahs’ – and intermittently surging synths. Breaking amidst the falsetto, bass and sound-effects of ‘Beverly Kills’, the alternately sleek and frantic exclamations ‘Can’t stop the press!’ and ‘I can’t break the headline’ entwine and dissipate, resolving without verbal conclusion into twirling synthesizer.
The movies are explicitly referenced, and there is a borrowing and a manipulation of movie lines in ‘Kinski Assassin’, where Pink sings ‘I will always, I will always, have Paris’. Pink evokes without setting his evocations within a solid past or present context; and his modification of Casablanca’s famous line is dialogic in the Bakhtinian sense in that it doesn’t merely show that movie’s influence, but provides an interpretation which can alter our viewing of the actions and emotions in the film. The difficulty of finding concrete meaning in anything, and in expressing in a singular and consistent way, is formulated in ‘Mature Themes’ in the succession of lines, ‘I’m sorry but it’s true, / truth is shameful and vile, / so I’m not real and I won’t call you / and I want to talk about mature things (daily)’. There is uncertainty too in the chorus, where it is unclear whether Pink sings ‘I want it to be good’ or ‘I wanted to be good’, his repetitions of ‘to be good’ increasingly desperate so that the word ‘good’ loses any simple sense. More, throughout the album, across songs, the range of musical genres and the different modes of mixing on display – with Pink’s vocals sometimes at the forefront and clear, sometimes deep, muddied and surrounded – increase the sense of a music full of different speech.
Pink’s music has been discussed within a dichotomy of sincerity and insincerity. Pitchfork, in their blurb rating Mature Themes the 21st best album of 2012, question the sincerity of the cover of ‘Baby’ which closes the album; and a similar sentiment characterises their discussion of the song itself in their list of 2012’s ‘top tracks’. ‘Baby’ – a cover of a previously obscure song from brothers Donnie and Joe Emerson’s 1979 album Dreamin’ Wild; uncovered over the past few years and re-released in 2012 by Light In The Attic Records – is an ethereal combination of soul, funk and hopeful longing, to which Pink adds whispers and moans and doo-wop, Flamingos-style ‘shoo-bops’. I’m not sure that it is adequate to question Pink’s sincerity in the song, or to to identify the locus of his music’s interest as its fluctuating between the poles of sincerity and insincerity. For Bakhtin, even at the peak of high poetry as a centralising linguistic force, the ‘heteroglossia of the clown sounded forth’ at street level, in everything from mythology and folk tales to bawdy songs. However, the use of language for comedic, ironic or parodic purpose alone, while it may be double-voiced, ultimately remains within an individual dialogue. It fails to be truly heteroglossic in the way that Pink’s music always is, even when covering another artist’s work, even when it does attain moments of communality as it markedly does in ‘Round and Round’, special precisely because the moment is brief and a shift in its own right.
I don’t mean to suggest in discussing Ariel Pink in this way that there is something especially literary about his art, or that he is alone in achieving a decentralisation of popular music. Yet I think this decentralising is one of the effects of his music; and I think the concept of heteroglossia provides an interesting way of thinking about him as a musician. It is notable that, despite his fluent Spanish, Pink works predominantly with and within an American musical tradition. Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of a minor literature, in their work Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature, shares points of similarity with Bakhtin’s concept of heteroglossia. Where heteroglossia decentralises and disunifies language, minor literature aims to ‘deterritorialise’ it. Deleuze and Guattari argue that ‘A minor literature doesn’t come from a minor language; it is rather that which a minority constructs within a major language’, and it is this that Pink’s music achieves: with a dialogic understanding of American culture, and with the heteroglossia that is a part of his compositional practice and an inherent facet of his voice, he makes a searching, significant and experimental ‘minor’ music out of major American pop culture.
Deleuze, G. & Guattari, F. Kafka: Towards a Minor Literature, and Bakhtin, M. Discourse in the Novel, in Leitch, V.B. (ed.) The Norton Anthology of Theory & Criticism (Second Edition: London; Norton, 2010)
Bakhtin’s Discourse in the Novel is available as a PDF file from the Iowa State University’s website: http://www.public.iastate.edu/~carlos/607/readings/bakhtin.pdf