John Maus & the Culture of the Spectacle

As a conventional language, the core implication of pop is a filmic quality. The productions of popular music, which include a system of conventions—lyrics, melodies, a verse-chorus-verse structure—readily lend themselves to another system of conventions: that of the culture of the spectacle, to representations and images specific to advertising and cinema. Work motivated by these spectacular ends can only prove endlessly dissatisfying, futile. Apart from this, however, is work that is informed by spectacle, but which systematically attempts to destabilize the regime of choices the society of the spectacle would make available to us. This is “creative work” in the deep sense. And the “language of pop,” as systematically questioned and antagonized by John Maus, effects a relocation of awareness beyond the spectacle, but in such a way that it is still rooted in that invaluable offshoot of capitalist acquisitiveness: Pop Art.


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“…I’m interested in this language of pop, a conventional language, a language that I see as part and parcel with our world, and I believe we should have no pretense of being superior to it. If we want to undo it we have to mobilize these languages….”


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Every ideal, every image, every spectacular end, is simultaneously permissive and constraining in that it is founded on both privatization and alienated labor. Advertisements for vacation getaways, such as one sees on subways, display images of unmitigated sensual indulgence—with the proviso that we purchase a vacation package, and with full understanding that whatever we’re presently doing does not resemble the plaisance of leisure activity. The image of a tropical paradise is a popular convention, a trope, which neglects to indicate the kinds of exploitation too often bound up with the development of touristy regions. The spectacle of imagined bliss also forms the cover art for John Maus’s first album (aptly titled, “Songs”), which confronts us with a garish pink surface, like eternal twilight, where an undefined couple overlooks an alien landscape, hugging each other in a nuptial embrace.




This could be a honeymoon in heaven or in hell. And that’s the point: to disrupt conventions by way of the conventional, extrapolating new forms of social interference by way of the normative images  created by the society of the spectacle. To use a Marxian phase, John Maus “turns pop music on its head,” rendering its conventions in a manner where they become radically defamiliarized.


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Speaking of the seemingly nostalgic quality of his compositions, Maus has stated—


“So they have some sounds…that were popular to use at a certain time – I’m not trying to evoke that time, I just hear that sound and it seems to suit this time right now. It’s not a question of invoking that time, it’s a question of the necessity that arises out of the work. It’s the correct sound for the work….”


Yet if sounds, or anything, can be categorized as “popular at a certain time,” this means their being has somehow been condensed into an image, an evocation. Historicity has been condensed inside them— not necessarily in the manner of a commodity, where labor-time indirectly translates into value, but in the manner of a spectacle, where the forces of capital are translated into an image. The appropriation of such imagery—the stylized wraiths of alienated labor—formed a creative methodology seized on by Pop Art in the 1960s. The artistry of John Maus continues Pop’s legacy, inasmuch as his musical landscapes represent the popular undercurrents from a certain time, just as a daguerreotype situated on a contemporary canvas might invoke, for at least that measure of space, a time when daguerreotypes were readily available as contemporary productions.


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On a cultural level, however, insofar as Maus’s music is contemporary and does speak to our time, it can be viewed as a creative redaction of the contemporary media surrounding us, putting into play a  non-discursive reexamination of the forms of social organization which existed when the sounds his music evokes “were popular to use at a certain time.” This might be considered the musical analogue of collage as Clement Greenberg defined it: something that would enable painting “to spell out, rather than pretend to deny, the physical fact that it was flat, even though at the same time it had to overcome this proclaimed flatness as an aesthetic fact and continue to report nature (71).” Pursuing this analogy , one can say that John Maus’s music preserves the “flatness” of pop by pretending to pure surfaces; at the same time his music has a stylized depth about it—a stylization rendered so consistent that it can only be willed. In this way, pop’s “flatness” is circumvented, and we musically perceive an alternative expanse where surface and depth dialectically interact.


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To what end? In the same way popular songs might carry a certain optimism within them, or invoke an irremediable despair, it’s entirely possible that this music we’re trying to describe can foreshadow future events: social changes created not so much by “revolution” as recuperated by the society of the spectacle—e.g., mythic masses of workers storming the White House—but by a creative reexamination of recent history. This would be more a revolution of attitude than of consciousness, and would conscientiously seek out alternative lights to those presented us by, say, the spectacle of the American presidency. This question of using spectacle against itself, of somehow turning against the representations of the world that have come to envelope us, discovers a burgeoning vitality in the realm of New Media, understood in its widest sense as the creative application of popular technologies (blogs, videos, computerized imagery, etc.). Social media, too, such as Youtube and Vimeo, are readily able to recreate the world, using spectacular social relations as a means toward their own  destabilization. These media, when conscientiously applied, inno way relegate Pop to a strictly virtual status—rather, they synthetically extend its language, positing new relations where no evident  analogies existed previously, and thereby create a context where the “virtual” and the “potential” become intimately allied.


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Significantly, the visual images that emerge from pop music—like the Apollonian emerging from the Dionysian—often dovetail privatization. Computers cost money, and so do the venues where live performances take place. This indicates that the images relating to such media stem from commodification even as they work to resist its alienating preconditions. But once we accept that social transformation can emerge on the cusp a privatized world, then the pathways opened up by New Media become virtually endless. As expressive means of production owned by their producers, they can communicate in a recognizable manner that one can respond to—in this way genuinely partaking in his or her share of responsibility for life in the world. To be sure, we cannot consider ourselves participants in a society where our freedom is exclusively virtual, any more than we can feel genuinely responsible  for a society where our so-called freedoms are superimposed: where, for example, we can only decide from among two or three presidential candidates—and these only to the extent that they have the requisite amount of financial backing to publicize their aims via television and radio. But if music can somehow reexamine existent forms of social organization, rethinking also the communicative potentials of New Media, then it can prepare the way for new modalities of social interaction. The musical language of John Maus, comfortably suited to the conventions of Pop, readily lends itself to these new endeavors.

Jeffrey Grunthaner is a poet & art-writer living in Brooklyn. Recent work can be found @ Bomblog, Revolutionesque, & Art Comments. & in The Death and Life of American Cities, & Creative Sugar, where he also serves as contributing art editor.

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