Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The Song Remains the Same

Today, March 8th, at 2:00pm in Horace Mann 193, Dr. Jeffrey T. Nealon will give a talk entitled: The Song Remains the Same: Classic Rock, Cultural Studies, and Post-Postmodernism. Dr. Nealon, a professor of English at Penn State, is the author of Double Reading: Postmodernism after Deconstruction (Cornell, 1993), Alterity Politics: Ethics and Performative Subjectivity (Duke, 1998), and The Theory Toolbox (with Susan Searls-Giroux, Rowman & Littlefield, 2003), an indispensable introduction to reading cultural theory. We’re very happy to offer this brief preview of the event.

SS: What’s the gist of your presentation?
JN: The Song Remains the Same is a critical account of the continuing ubiquity of 1960s-70s “classic rock” in American culture. I’m trying here neither to celebrate nor to denounce the commodity called classic rock, but to try to understand its continuing and singular place in American cultural life – and to think about whether its unprecedented continuing popularity suggests any changes in what cultural studies theorists have to say about the fraught relations among contemporary American cultural production and economic production. To anticipate my conclusion, I argue that classic rock’s longevity is both a symptom of Fredric Jameson’s famous understanding of postmodernism (in shorthand, the complete collapse of cultural production into the logic of economic production and vice versa), but that in addition the continuing reign of classic rock as a cultural commodity also shows us the emergent logic of something else: not necessarily something “new,” but a different, more intense mode of production/consumption that I’ll call, for lack of another word, post-postmodern.

SS: When you refer to the "commodity called classic rock," do you mean solely rock music of the 60s and 70s or do you include current popular acts who reproduce a classic rock aesthetic in their music?
JN: Just the 60s and 70s, really.

SS: Regarding Jameson's understanding of postmodernism, what stands out to you about classic rock over other popular musical forms born in the mid-20th century like Country or R&B?
JN: Well, for Jameson postmodernism is the complete collapse of the logic of cultural production into the logic of economic production (innovation, symbolic economies, affect all get folded into economic production, rather than functioning as something 'other'), so all popular music on Jameson's account functions according to that paradigm. For me, the distinction or uniqueness of classic rock is its longevity as a cultural commodity -- 17 yr olds still listen to The Doors, and there's still a popular radio format dedicated to that genre of 40-year-old music. But 17-year-old country fans don't routinely listen to the country songs of the late 60s (e.g. Tammy Wynette), and there's no widespread "classic country" radio in every American media market. That's the thing that's hard to explain about classic rock from a cultural studies point of view -- its longevity as a youth cultural product.

SS: Is it oversimplifying to state then that the reason for classic rock's continued ubiquity, as opposed to the relative obscurity (in pop cultural terms) of "classic country" or "Americana," is its profitability during the 60s and 70s? In other words, reproducing today the aesthetics of that era, as a means of making a profit, necessitates the inclusion of its most commercial components.

Well, there are plenty of profitable cultural operations of the 1970s -- from The Partridge family to the pet rock -- that were plenty successful in their day, but nobody today thinks of them as "cool." Think Boudieu, cultural capital: it's partially classic rock's commitment to "authenticity" in the face of a commodified world (what, for example, "Satisfaction" and "Stairway to Heaven" have in common) that makes classic rock such an enduring cultural commodity. That and what's changed about capitalism in the meantime, which is mostly what the paper is about

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