BY Thomas Hübener in Profiles | 21 APR 14
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Issue 14

Papa Don't Preach

Nailing jelly to a wall: Diedrich Diederichsen’s attempt to define Pop music

BY Thomas Hübener in Profiles | 21 APR 14

Über Pop-Musik, 2014

Diedrich Diederichsen’s new book Über Pop-Musik (On Pop Music, Kiepenheuer & Witsch, 2014) was everywhere this spring. Nominated for the non-fiction prize at the Leipzig Book Fair and billed by its publisher as a ‘magnum opus’, it received blanket rave reviews in the broadsheets. In Die Welt am Sonntag a gushing Ulf Poschardt called it a ‘philoso­phical masterpiece’ and in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung Claudius Seidl lauded the pleasure of being allowed to follow this ‘cleverest and most inspired critic’. In the Süddeutsche Zeitung Jens-Christian Rabe decreed Diederichsen’s 500-page tome (whose lightweight paper makes it surprisingly un-weighty) an ‘event in the history of ideas’: ‘there is thinking about pop music before this book, and there is thinking about pop music after this book’, he pronounced. Bearing all this effusive praise in mind, it is surprising how many questions remain about the book.

Diedrich Diederichsen’s record collection in his Berlin-Schöneberg apartment, 2013 (photograph: Kristin Loschert)

To begin with, the cover, showing Diedrichsen’s own endless shelves full of LPs and CDs – the musical equivalent to a library in a bourgeois home – is misleading. Diederichsen’s take on pop music is not about collecting and hoarding. Instead, he is interested in a very specific encounter that takes place when the recording of a unique moment in the studio (such as a ‘highly individual voice, as singular as a fingerprint’) is heard for the first time. When the listener hears it again, the song – in Diederichsen-speak: the ‘technically repeatable unrepeatable’ – becomes the signifier for that first experience. Bedsitter (1981) then, is no longer just a single by Soft Cell, but the look in Yvonne’s eyes the first time we kissed (this theory also supplies a convincing explanation for the phenomenon of songs one can no longer bear to hear – for example after Yvonne decided she would rather kiss someone else). By this ‘re-listening to the first listen’ theory, pop music becomes a photo album of one’s own life. But this begs the rejoinder: surely fans of classical music also associate personal memories with specific recordings of works that they heard for the first time? On this basis does Stravinsky also qualify as pop? Of course not, but Diederichsen’s definition throws up this vagueness.

He’s more specific when he describes pop as the kind of music ‘where you want to know what the singer looks like’ – an artistic form where looks matter. According to this Professor for Theory, Practice and Communication of Contemporary Art at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna, cover photographs, sleeve notes, booklets and videos are helpful beacons for disorientated fledglings – teens as they test their wings ‘in the antechamber of society’. In fact, he claims more bluntly, pop music is actually not music at all but a complex structure of overlapping forms of communication: ‘a format contaminated by all manner of cultural media that uses music primarily as a base and background against which to speak, show and perform.’ In Diederichsen’s view, the main thing pop music says is ‘NO’. Pop music means saying no within the mode that cries yes – the possibility of non-conformism by conformist means. This ‘no’ is not the revulsion of high-brow fans of twelve-tone when faced with music whose simplicity they see as an insult to their intellect. The ‘no’ of pop music is the contempt of fans of cool simple music towards fans of uncool simple music. Or even towards those who listen to the right music for the ‘wrong’ reasons – those who blithely dance to the Pet Shop Boys because they know the song from the charts and like the beat, but who are utterly clueless to the complexity of its codes. In Diederichsen’s view, in pop music the distinction ‘between high and low culture’ is applied ‘to popular culture itself’ – like some secret code accessible to all.

Diedrich Diederichsen, 2013 (courtesy: Diedrich Diederichsen)

Über Pop-Musik looks at its subject from a variety of angles. For its author, defining pop music means defining an overall experience rather than one specific subject. For much of the book, his attempts to achieve this are like trying to nail jelly to a wall. This comes at the price of a style that can be far from accessible. Compared to the elegant pop theorizing of someone like Simon Reynolds, for example, Diederichsen’s ecstasies of exactitude often read like a dissertation, lacking nonchalance in spite of scattered hipsterisms. More of a problem, however, is that the jelly just won’t stick. This has to do with the way Diederichsen fuses description with judgement. On the one hand, he wants to ennoble pop music (his lifelong passion) in the academic arena, but on the other hand he wants to be the one deci­-ding the playlist. As the synthesis of scholar and tastemaker, he fails to give his subject a clear profile – in spite of the conceptual acrobatics and clever references to Hegel, Adorno, Foucault and Barthes. His theories are always interesting, but even after 500 pages he is unable to explain convincingly why Suicide and Tyler the Creator are pop, but Pink Floyd and Eric Clapton aren’t (the latter comes in for particularly intense vilification). The fact that Clapton is not pop is something most people know intuitively but cannot prove theoretically. Clapton’s songs, too, technically reproduce studio singularities; he, too, is part of a world of iconic visuals and there must be teenagers who stand in front of the mirror at home practicing bluesy Clapton frowns as a way of saying no – to their parents, or Skrillex, or others similarly annoying. When Diederichsen judges that Clapton doesn’t make the grade, it’s purely a matter of taste. And taste-based verdicts are easier to fire off than to justify theoretically. Of course Diederichsen realizes that this kind of sniping will be more resented coming from a fully paid-up member of the academe than from some hipster intellectual. Which is why he heaps argument on argument, before finally surrendering – on page 145 – by just calling Clapton a ‘dickhead’. This intellectual capitulation is reminiscent of Adorno’s huffiness towards those who would rather have a bit of alienated, culture-industry fun than read a good book. Unable to prove that the masses are not having fun, Adorno cried ‘false consciousness’. Diederichsen’s ‘you’re just stupid’ is not so different.

Über Pop-Musik is unlikely to be the last word on the subject of pop music, then. But it is equally unlikely that future approaches to pop studies in the German-speaking world will be able to ignore it.
Translated by Nicholas Grindell

Thomas Hübener is a literary critic, writer and editor living in Hannover.