Fractals of the Teenage Dream
Let me explain for those who are scratching their heads saying, WTF WTF WTF?
As a proponent of anthropology, and as reflected in my preoccupations in this blog, I feel that both pop music itself and critics who write the pieces that resonate are like excellent capsule ethnographies of song(s), album(s), and/or artist(s). Creators of pop music are likewise crafting mini ethnographies in their songs. And the line between ethnography and storytelling are not so clear. Especially as the academy flings about the use of narratives left and right, it blurs that line. I am guilty of this too. And who could deny that songs are also storytelling. There is the basic human desire to tell stories.
The way that those ethnographies have been constructed, and discussed in the field of socio-cultural anthropology has changed significantly and been contested by many scholars.
In the article, Powers talks about fragmentation. She gives the example of Janelle Monae:
It's not just that life seems to be moving faster than ever before—it's shakin' all over, constantly rearranging itself within all of the cognitive windows we keep open at once. Music is changing along with every other cultural form in response to this psychic revolution. Janelle Monae's The Archandroid was my favorite album of the year partly because it powerfully communicates this experience of internal fragmentation, not only through the science-fiction story line that influences the lyrics, but in its agitated relationship to genre—on the album, Monae and her collaborators in the Wondaland Arts Society itchily move from show tunes to psychedelia to funk without pausing to signal their changes—and in its very sound.
Powers connects this fragmentation to the hard-soft contrast that is prominent in pop music. It reflects the zeitgeist of our contemporary society's struggle with a fragmented psyche. As she says:
We can all cite examples of why this is nothing new, yet I think it's back now in force because hard-soft is what the cruel world of chronic unemployment and weird weather and distant war demands that we be. We still need to feel pleasure and hope, to be open in the way music makes us. But we need to maintain a sharp edge, to be ready to hit "delete" and "refresh" and move on.
What Powers says here is an exciting. It isn't simply some grand modernist narratives crashing against one another and irreparably imploding into a million pieces, causing our contemporary alienation. This is not just also about simultaneously seeking comforting solace. The enduring resonance and re-usage in pop music is cause for telling, interpreting, and re-interpreting the narratives, which allow us to find infinite possibility, sometimes discarded, sometimes renewed, but never fixed, always in constant iteration.
A single word that gets to the key concept that Powers addresses in today's pop music is the fractal. Its foremost proponent in application to anthropology is Marilyn Strathern. In Stathern's book Reproducing the future: Anthropology, and the kinship and the new reproductive technologies she writes:
Persons may be understood fractally: their dimensionality cannot be expressed in whole numbers. The fractal person is an entity with relationship integrally implied...
There is no axiomatic evaluation of intimacy or closeness here. On the contrary, people work to create divisions between themselves. For in activation of relations people make explicit what differentiates them...detachment is never final, and the process is constantly recreated in people's dealings with one another. (1992, 125)
And prefacing this, Stathern, outlines in great detail how shifting ideas of ethnography have lead to the creative possibility of fractal recombinations, a strategy for survival:
The mood of lost authenticity--the idea that the world is full of changed, part-cultures--is not new. What is new ([Clifford] says) is the setting that the late twentieth century provides: 'a truly global space of cultural connections and dissolutions has become imaginable: local authencities meet and merge in transient...settings(1988: 4). The task is how to respond to an unprecedented overlay of traditions. Ethnography must be an ethnography of conjectures, moving between cultures, a cosmopolitan practices which participates in the hybridisation he sees everywhere...
Texts that once celebrated the integration of cultural artefacts have been displaced by deliberate attention to the uniqueness of fragments. Creativity can only lie in their recombination. Clifford sees this as salvation not just for texts but for the concept of culture itself, for cultures have always been hybrids, 'the roots of tradition [forever] cut and retied (1988: 15)...
Elements cut from diverse times and places can be recombined, though they cannot fit together as a whole...Clifford's problem, then is not that of simple multiplicity or of the multiculturalism of contact. Rather, it a postplural vision of a composite world forever the result of borrowings and interchanges.
Without wholes, the only thing to do is recombine the parts.
One the one hand, like rootless persons cultures are always in fragments; on the other hand in their collecting it is part anthropologists who have cut up cultures into bits and reassembles their narratives. Cultures are always hybrids, yet cultural future lies in further creative recombining...
But this is not an easy endeavor. A DJ or producer is probably the most obvious pop music equivalent we could draw to an ethnographer in creative recombination. But by extension pop artists and their critics take part in this recombination. The best hard-soft pop songs may seem simple and self-apparent, but their craft often requires great feats of inspiration and/or interpretation (or marketing). Ethnography and the narratives we interpret from our data are actually quite difficult artistic endeavors and analytic choices. Powers points to the pain of these challenges in her deft redemption of Katy Perry, of all popstars:
"You think I'm pretty without any makeup on," Perry whispers incredulously in the first line of "Teenage Dream," her voice leaning slightly stunned against a latticework-privacy-fence of kick drum. The plucked way Perry sings the lyric—as if what she's saying is just impossible—says so much about how far we all feel we've strayed from our genuine selves. That line is the most important one to make the Top 10 this year, I think: its tragic nostalgia, playing out the new version of the hard-soft dynamic that made 1990s alt-rock so shocking—yeah, that Nirvana sound—except now what this jarring contrast expresses is a woman finding her power, a woman not knowing if that power is going to cost her everything and certainly not whether it will be worth it, instead of a boy-man like Kurt Cobain getting in touch with his feminine side.
Let me particularly focus on one thing Powers writes: "...we've strayed from our genuine selves." She is concerned with the crisis of authenticity. And if there is anything anthropology is also grappling with, it's crisis of authenticity and culture. There is no such thing as an authentic whole anymore.
It set off a mini whirlwind of anthropological/theoretical questions for me: Has pop music (and by extension pop culture) always been fractal? Or is the fractal becoming of greater importance in the the narratives we tell about pop? And how does looking at something as fractal different from fragmentary? Because fragmentation implies a disintegration, a split into infinite particles, but a fractal is much more like an infinite proliferation depending on the scale. Which also allows for constant scalar shifts. Thus, does pop music and discussion thereof as a fractal offer a vitality and an act of survival inasmuch as it is ethnography?
Important note: I still sorta don't like Katy Perry's vocal delivery; her breathy leaps and irritating upper register are not especially my taste. Case in point, her brand of vocal acrobatics butchered this Fountains of Wayne song.
Still, the candy colored gender struggle Powers notes does make me grudgingly appreciate her. Of course, in the Slate article Powers also praises Janelle Monae, whom I totally adore. So I'll leave you with a further connection, one I hope to write on more in the future. This explanation of fractals applied to anthropology speaks of the Haraway's work on the cyborg as a foundation for such applications. In concert, consider Janelle Monae's Archandroid which celebrates and complicates the cyborg dilemma. Cue analogy question: is Donna Haraway to anthropology what Janelle Monae is to pop? Is the whole album, and specifically Tightrope concerned with challenging binaries the same way Haraway's cyborg is?