Fillip 9 — Winter 2009

Water Versus Objects: Reproduction or Dissemination, or How Did Pop Music Become Ubiquitous?
Diedrich Diederichsen

Walter Benjamin began the second edition of his essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” with a long quote from Paul Valéry’s “La conquête de l’ubiquité,” a text that can be described as a complimentary opposite and supplementary counterpart to Benjamin’s famous text:

Our fine arts were developed, their types and uses were established, in times very different from the present, by men whose power of action upon things was insignificant in comparison with ours. But the amazing growth of our techniques, the adaptability and precision they have attained, the ideas and habits they are creating, make it a certainty that profound changes are impending in the ancient craft of the Beautiful. In all the arts there is a physical component which can no longer be considered or treated as it used to be, which cannot remain unaffected by our modern knowledge and power. For the last twenty years neither matter nor space nor time has been what it was from time immemorial. We must expect great innovations to transform the entire technique of the arts, thereby affecting artistic invention itself and perhaps even bringing about an amazing change in our very notion of art.1

It might also be possible to look at Valéry’s essay as a founding document for a specific theory of pop music in the same way that film, media, and other visual culture studies have claimed Benjamin’s essay as fundamental to their discourses and fields.

Why did Benjamin introduce his essay with Valéry’s quote? Perhaps the remark that there is “a physical component in all art,” which cannot be understood without recourse to “modern science” and “modern praxis,” represents a rare instance among Benjamin’s contemporaries since it seems to support his attempts at designing a media theory. But Valéry, unlike Benjamin, was not very interested in a theory of reproduction or of the technology and the apparatus of media since, for him, the technical prerequisites were secondary to the magic of dissemination; i.e., he was more interested in the cultural and psychological consequences of a medium than in its technological base. Also, in contrast to Benjamin, who focussed on the visual arts, Valéry focussed on music, and, in particular pop music, which I will define in more detail moving forward.

In “La conquête de l’ubiquité,” originally written for an anthology on music that later included his Pièces sur l’art, Valéry drew nothing less than a global and prophetic picture of music’s future, which, in fact, aptly describes how music circulates in the world now. For Valéry, music is ubiquitous. It resounds everywhere at all times. It can be called up at a whim, provided that an appropriate device exists to play it. Thus, in his essay from 1928 he already assumes the existence of something like the iPod!

But this prophetic strength was diminished by his neglecting of the relation between material and technological developments and the cultural consequences, which he prognoses. Valéry presupposed they were not worth mentioning. As a consequence, his concentration on the cultural diagnosis of a new media situation, independent from any interest in the technical basis, later disappeared; it had no epistemological successor and no paradigm grew out of it. Most contemporary media theories, the Canadian as well as the German wing, were based on an understanding of the technology of media. Yet, contemporary media theory has somehow lost this early relationship that Benjamin drew between his ideas on technically reproducible art works and Valéry’s notion of ubiquitous music. What then was this relationship? What effects do the differing ontologies of the visual arts and music have on media theories and the metaphors that emerge more or less spontaneously around them? Finally, what characterizes the relationship between Valéry’s future of ubiquitous music and the central point of Benjamin’s essay on the famous contrast between the aestheticization of politics and the politicization of aesthetics, which he equates with the political antagonism between fascism and communism?

I am interested in addressing these questions with special reference to pop music. Although Valéry takes his examples of music from a European canon, he anticipated the genesis of a musical culture that emerged after World War II and grew into what I like to refer to as “the second culture industry.” I am using the term pop music in contrast to popular music, referring to a kind of popular music that has expanded to include visual and other non-musical expressions. Both components, the musical and the non-musical, cannot be understood separately from one another. Of course, this tendency began with the Hollywood musical, if not earlier with several attempts at the Gesamtkunstwerk, but pop music in my view stands for a completely developed cultural-industrial as well as subcultural format, based on these tendencies. It did not reach this stage until the late 1950s, when the medium of television began to reach mass audiences with the broadcasting of new and close images of performing musicians.

The visual elements of pop music include, but are not limited to television shows, movie productions, and fan memorabilia, but, for the most part, expand into observable lifestyle choices made by fans who adopt their haircuts, outfits, attitudes, and body language from musical icons, or pop stars, and then parade them into public life, complementing the sounds that ring out of speakers worldwide into a new whole. This development brought out a required feature of pop music—that it always delivers itself incompletely and only as background to the film completed by one’s own life. Significantly, pop music may also emerge in the intimacy of one’s home, where the experience of listening to it is completed and supplemented by individual listeners in private rather than public life. Therefore, a ubiquitous music is not only expansive—above all, it is invasive.

A decisive function of pop music is that it consoles lonely individuals. While cultural studies have concentrated mainly on pop music’s influence on postwar life through grander forms of collective entertainment—both in hedonistic excesses and liberations as well as in disciplinary and narcotic mass events—it is important to note that pop music’s impact exists only if others stay at home, uninvited, without a partner, or because they are too young or too old for the celebration of eternal promises that pop music offers. “There are days of moroseness; there are people who are very lonely.” For Valéry, then, ubiquity is useful because it can relieve people of their solitude and sadness. Only ubiquitous music can be there when there is nobody else, in other words, for those who are most alone. Pop music helps those who can pray only to an almighty and ubiquitous god by providing the concrete and sensual song of a crooner, whose technically and magically rendered voice addresses and soothes the loneliest of listeners. The ubiquity of pop music deludes the lonely into thinking they are being followed or accompanied, but here the situation does elicit the opposite of paranoia, a feeling of being individually comforted. To this aim, the recording and amplification of the human voice is developed in this specific historical stage of cultural-industrial development. This technical achievement allowed for a whispering singer to be louder than his accompanying orchestra. Frank Sinatra famously used this technology to promote his career so that those who sat close to the radio had his amplified voice ringing in their ears.

In reality, the invasive tendency within pop music does not produce consolation exclusively. When it addresses individuals while alone, their isolation becomes magnified as they understand loneliness to be an inescapable shared experience and a universal, inconsolable state. This can be gleaned, perhaps, from the infamous wave of suicides supposed to have been triggered by the song Gloomy Sunday on hot summer days during the 1950s, as a well known myth has it. These teenage suicides, real or not, and other similar events catalyzed by pop songs are not simply coincidental.

Invasive music did not serve comfort alone. It could also be perceived as threatening. Or, it could universalize personal tragedy into global despair. In contrast to Valéry, Benjamin sees a ready-made comfort in the invasive dimension of the “new” media, whose indiscrete penetration of the individual’s body and soul he compares to that of a surgeon’s cut. The surgeon, in contrast to the magician’s mysterious laying on of hands and the neighbourhood physician’s familiarity with a patient, does not treat him or her “man-to-man.” Rather, he penetrates the patient with his instruments, treating the man or woman like a nonhuman object. This idea is central in pop and paranoia expert William S. Burroughs’ description of Dr. Benway, the brutally laconic physician in _Naked Lunch_—that the pop culture and the culture industry in general “re-build” the recipient’s mental and physical hardware through a process similar to a surgical operation. Perhaps because of this idea, Burroughs did not believe that countercultures could succeed by open political protest. Instead, he advocated the use of secret, subversive maneuvers against the culture industry.

Since the 1950s, more drastic formulations have described how new, ubiquitous music goes to one’s head (e.g., You Go to My Head by Billie Holiday, among others), making the subjection to the incapacitating power of love comparable to other powers, but pop music’s consolation model functions differently, in the manner described by Valéry. Indeed, it differs from Benjamin’s and Burroughs’ skeptical, manipulation theories. The telescopic transition from concert hall to living room (beginning with the Radio City Music Hall broadcast) provides a closeness that allows the individual to be informally addressed, or even courted, by male and female singers. The microphone’s ability to record a voice’s nuances and distinguish such a large number of precisely localizable signals, compressed mass and private address. The invasiveness is not constituted by penetration of the recipient’s body but by the producer’s closeness: they are in the same room—in a room in which we are normally alone. Frank Sinatra, Paul Anka, and Elvis Presley, thus, count among those who have invented the “man-to-man” mode of communication. Before such technology, the intimate experiences sentimental music talked about were separated from its reception, from any public or private listening, by the doors of the sleeping chamber.

This new closeness between singer and listener creates the productive illusion that the singer is not only close but also equal to the listener. By bringing the singer’s voice closer, the technology of pop music creates an amazing revelation about the everyday—it implies that I, as a listener, know everything about the fictive, semi-fictive, and real core conditions that legitimize the sentimental voice. Here, the possibility to technically level out the specificities of voice, for instance, the possibility that specific vocal weaknesses are compensated for, is balanced by a personalization of the traditional good but anonymous voices that were the ideal before pop music. Voices were recorded that were bad by classical standards but highly individual. This individuality was less based on the singularity of the person and his or her abilities—as in classical art formats—but on the reality of his or her body, indicated by singularity. This makes pop music a specific cultural format. Now we allow the voices to come close to us because they have let us come close to them—since they do not belong to a master but to a individual but exchangeable body.

If Benjamin’s famous suggestion that “every human being of today...can make the claim to be filmed”—a suggestion often read as an anticipation of Andy Warhol’s methodology as exemplified by his _Screen Tests_—is not only caused by the chance to be accidentally filmed by roving news teams, but explicitly connected with the expertise of those young bike messengers who know as much about the bicycles they see on a screen in a documentary on a bike race as does the expert commentator, then it is also plausible to conclude that the intimate association of fans with stars has occasioned these developments. Making this association possible after it has been lost to commercialization is the professed goal of all reform movements in pop music, such as punk, hip hop, or techno. If people make use of their right to be filmed or recorded, they subject themselves to the porosity of a relationship between fandom and stardom. But, a ubiquitous, pop music does not accommodate any equivalence between fans and stars—i.e., there are a greater number of recipients than there are producers. Nonetheless, there is a framing fiction about pop music that is at work in distribution reform movements defined by the presence of independent labels, Internet releases, or the culture of peer-to-peer exchanges. All of these movements tend to assert a symmetry and permeability between fans and stars.

Valéry lacked an interest in the technical aspects of the sonic signal or the number of directional tracks in a channel. He saw the production of music as an ambitious activity undertaken by experts and believed that questions of distribution would be technically solved as society progressed. Just as the ecologically unenlightened think that electricity simply comes “out of the socket,” Valéry concludes that music would be distributed “like water, like gas, like electricity” as if they were natural processes. Perhaps it is unfair to consider the relationship between ubiquity and reproducibility from the perspective of media theory today given its occasionally narrow focus on the technology of media. Valéry’s decision to project music onto a new world of media relocates the mediality of music from the level of signal and channel to, first and foremost, the means by which music is disseminated into the world, before it is reproduced and even before it is recorded. This medium is air and soundwaves, but the more popular image of music’s mode of dissemintation was, in many cultures, water.

Music has always been compared to water because it constitutes its unity in its transformability and movement—such that it runs everywhere, wetting and penetrating everything. It is interesting that air, which is the real technical prerequisite for music, has been seen as the medium of its disappearance: “Music—once it’s in the air it’s gone. You can never recapture it again.” Those were the last recorded words by Jazz musician Eric Dolphy, three weeks before his death.

If air is the material by which music gets lost—as it infinitely disperses and finally disappears—it must be contrasted to another materiality. Water, the substance that sprays through the air, seeps into the ground and vapourizes—literally changing into three states of matter—offering a metaphor of materiality. The metaphor of water is ubiquitous in pop music. One might recall a lyrical tradition from the 1960s, in which music commonly entered into immediate contact with water: Jim Morrison repeatedly commands the listener to “breathe underwater until the end” in The Doors’ Yes, the River Knows (1968); Roger McGuinn, like a reverse Undine, wanted to transform into a river and exude into the sea in The Byrds’ Ballad of Easy Rider (1969).

Like water, music is not always a cheerfully murmuring creek or a torrential stream like the Vltava, Mississippi, or even Claude Debussy’s Mediterranean. Less than one hundred years before the nineteenth century, “water music” (Händel) could still refer to the artificially laid out water spectacle of an entirely tamed nature. In this context, aesthetic value derived from human control of the elements and not in the experience of the sublime, which threatened humans with the destructive power of nature. The fascination for a musical water-nature that would leave the riverbed and become uncanny (E.T.A. Hoffmann) or reveal its elementary nature (Hegel) was replacing the enjoyment of a tamed water spectacle approximately a century after Händel, but these two poles—the domination over nature and its domination of us—are in fact two sides of the same aesthetic coin.

The coin lost its value when music could be stored, and, with the connection between water and music, lost its productive stimulus. This is because music becomes an object through “storing” technology, thereby losing its liquid qualities, its ubiquity. At the same time that music loses its resemblance to the materiality of water, musicians who have operated instead with the notion that music is trapped and objectified through various “storing” media must deal with a different problem. Valéry fails to address questions around music “storage” or the object of music created in this process. Instead, his comparison of music with water (or electricity) returns to Händel and the idea of music as a thing that is domesticated and conditioned because of its conductive nature.

Therefore, Valéry thought of ubiquity as some kind of irrigation system, following the methods of a rationalistic agronomy that intended to distribute the existing course of rivers and a biome’s water more equally, more justly. Why should opera, for instance, be concentrated in the deep sea of the opera houses when its effects can be conducted into rooms and niches where everybody may enjoy it?

But the real historical ubiquity that followed from the dissemination of pop music was based on discrete sound objects, in many respects, and, therefore, resembles more a case of reproduction and technologies of storage described by Benjamin. Valéry only saw the newly emergent music object crystallizing through the connection between music and its composer. Here, Valéry recognized that recorded music presented the composer with a new task, though he did not concretize this idea further. A fundamental change was that, through the composer, music was extracted from its temporal ontology and, through the aesthetics of its production, began resembling sculpture.

This development has been described and worked out by musicians in different ways especially since World War II. La Monte Young explicitly develops his “minimal music” as a “music of stasis.” Following Varèse’s Poème Électronique, presented at the Brussels World Exhibition in 1958, the first sound installations were created during the 1960s. George Martin has pointed out that the new multitrack production techniques of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band forced The Beatles to begin thinking of music outside terms of processes; they began to incorporate sound effects whose meaning could not often be fully coded. For example, in every verse of “Good Morning, Good Morning,” John Lennon placed the sound of an animal, and with each successive verse, the listener hears a different animal, which, in nature, would be higher in the food chain than the animal heard in the previous stanza.

It is precisely the stored and reproduced audio object (neglected by Valéry) and not a technology of streaming that achieved ubiquity. For music to be distributed, it had to be captured onto little objects, which, in turn, had to be reproduced (just as Benjamin suggested, in contrast to Valéry). Mass-produced objects containing stored music could be brought into and installed in all kinds of environments because they were discrete and not streamed, like a liquid. They became controlled commodities as sonic data carriers monitored by copyrights and sales statistics. They have become worshipped as fetishes with many different cults and rites investing in them. Their sustained dissemination was always a transgression of the limit about which Benjamin always spoke—the border between art and life. Pop music could only work if the fans made themselves available as employees of its narratives—positions they, nonetheless, paid to occupy. Adorno saw this already in the 1920s when he compared recorded music to photo albums.

Pop music culture took on the task of producing a stream of music—a stream that began subsiding and accumulating at the dams of objectification through transistor radios, ghetto blasters, and walkmans, among other vehicles. This was important for the cultural industry as well as for pop music as an art form. However, the dissemination of pop music in the world of gigantic, mainstream culture, as well as in the closed world of countercultural elites, was made possible only through thousands of intermediaries, relays, and connections through other media (i.e., visual rather than sound), other ontologies (i.e., reality instead of art), and other goals (i.e., politics rather than escapism), that represent the everyday life of pop music. Only those supplements from non-art could prevent music from getting stuck in the objecthood of records. Benjamin understood this process better than Valéry with his theory of mechanical reproduction. This is because Valéry’s metaphor of the water tap is predicated on water flowing to lonely individuals without obstacles. The object, however, needs a great deal of human effort in order to flow as if it were water. Following Benjamin, the invention of the pop star, who, as an actor playing himself, is a representative and, at the same time, is represented. In this sense, the pop star could be interpreted as pop music’s response to the loss of aura.

Reproduction and the flood of new commodities were the engines of pop music. At first, pop music carried sound from one place to another, but then it expanded to include visual objects such as record sleeves, posters, videos, and movies. Now, with contemporary merchandising as the main source of income for many musicians and labels (or just owners of rights), objects are sold with only a vague relation to the music as in T-shirts, caps, skateboards, etc....In this world of reproductions, objects, and commodities, pop music transforms romantic ideas of music and juxtaposes them against the machinery of sonic carriers, commodities, children, and feelings. Through this process, pop music also re-orients itself towards the classic allegories of music per se, this time the modern industrial version of water: electricity. For a long time, this relationship between electricity and music revolved around an association with elementary metaphysical music, represented in its purest form by those musicians who strictly rejected the electric guitar, e.g. Kraftwerk. Their piece “Strom” (1972), which in English means stream or “(electrical) current,” is nothing but the switching on and off of an electric guitar, showing the effect of electricity without even playing the instrument.

Over the last decade, contemporary music has begun to flow again like water. It can now be experienced like nature as if it were transmitted without media through digital and internationally connected computers, which constitute a newer and universally valid medium that has rendered data from all arts, exchangeable. In this situation, specific media are annihilated. Resistances, intermediaries, and relay switches continue to disappear, showing Valéry’s concept of a water tap as being closer to reality. “Digital culture” has not only accelerated and made easier the dissemination of all other cultural formats, it has also changed the most important thing in pop music—its objects. While the score was the most important object in classical music, in pop music, it was the performance stored on music objects and connected with visual illustrations and labels that was most critical. Nowadays, it is a more or less anonymous sound file that can be copied infinitely and modified by the recipient without destruction of the “original.” It does not include any images and often it does not even carry the name of the artist. Downloading and exchanging sound files creates entirely different social associations and entirely different units and points of reference that have increasingly moved away from the units of pop music that are defined by a purchasable sound carrier. As in Valéry’s image of music, the sounds can flow “on call.”

Alienated life has found some kind of agora in pop music thanks to its public attempts at “living” fixed music, making the stream of music, which is locked up twice as an object and then as a commodity, flow again, regardless of the multiple, internal self-contradictions of all such attempts. Many of the initiatives that try to promote Internet culture are structurally connected to such an understanding of public life where as many incomplete and uncensored voices as possible get an opportunity to speak without anybody wanting to harmonize them. Not only pop music culture but also the water metaphors of pure music have inspired prophets of Internet culture. On the one hand, the Internet has been the technical realization of such a network of interfaces and connections as pop music had established in impure form “in the world.” The unlimited flow and unobstructed permeation of dissemination that the Internet makes possible has become more of a reason to remember the old metaphors of music. The flowing data streams are everywhere experienced as if in nature. The chic of streaming consists in the fact that no device, no archive, no record collection can be seen except for a thin laptop or an even smaller iPod, minimalist objects that receive revealing data much like the monolith in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).

This wealth of sound received individually, whether at home or everywhere at all times, is, of course, not realized specifically for moments of sadness. It is intended for all moments. By storing record and CD collections that would not fit in a single-family house on my iPod, whose weight I hardly notice while carrying it, I can experience the most minute mood swings accompanied by the appropriate soundtrack. While I am sitting on a bus or while I am stuck in a traffic jam, I can stride across the immeasurable space of an archive, deciding precisely the song that suits any given situation. However, this music, which seems to flow unobserved, does not correspond to the pop music of the past that consoled the lonely at home. Rather, this new pop music corresponds to the structural loneliness found in a world whose public structures, both cultural and social, do not call for our physical presence. Instead, our bodies turn to fitness and other activities, our souls to an electronic isolation. The wealth of sound is the artificial irrigation of an otherwise fairly withered area.

Like Benjamin, Valéry also saw the world in which humanity is consoled by music, or art, as not really utopian, but still a more pleasant alternative to the world that Valéry had encountered when he saw a play as a child “in some foreign country.” In the play, “the pieces of furniture were speaking, they were singing, they poetically and mischievously took part in the dramatic action.” He writes of being afraid of the continuity between his childhood memory and the experience of cafés during his time, when musical performances disturbed their audiences. We also know more today about this world of objects that constantly takes on subjective characteristics. It is the world of commodities, which constantly sing and address themselves personally to us, as only Sinatra could just a half century ago. Certainly, ring tones are conflating the “subjectivity” of the music object with that of their cell phone users. In fact, cell phones still mostly operate within older patterns of pop music, i.e. the listener “decorates” himself with an object to indicate his specific music taste. Ring tones are not, therefore, in line with the digital aesthetics of flowing, in which such an object of reference is hardly noteworthy.

Valéry’s dystopia is not, however, as drastic as that of Benjamin’s description of a fascist state. But, as music that is contaminated by reproductive elements, pop music has been oscillating between two possibilities, the aestheticization of politics and the politicization of aesthetics, publicly, observably, and loudly. Today, it is refined into a healthy and natural lifesaver, while still marking listeners in public as pop music used to do. Unlike older pop music, contemporary pop marks listeners less with badges and logos of debatable political positions, cultural opinions, and preferences of taste than with tracks of the vast, music data stream that is becoming more and more empty and, thus, more and more purely musical.

Valéry’s conclusion is conciliatory. He finds the “new affinity between music and physics” promising. In actual fact, however, what we are seeing is a metaphor of music being closed off by means of a homogenizing digital technology that originates in physics and the natural sciences. This directs an empty sonic stream of digital currents past the world and into electronic loneliness. Perhaps on to magical gardens of the mind. Pop music, however, with its constantly jittery and mostly futile battle against the culture industry always followed the path that was evident to everyone. Newspaper delivery boys have continued to talk incessantly about pop music up to this day and only recently have they become quieter, until even their last conversation dies away against the tranquil burbling of streaming media. Or, perhaps, and for which there are also indicators, they will continue to talk, never mind about what.

  1. Paul Valéry, “The Conquest of Ubiquity,” Aesthetics, trans. Ralph Manheim (New York: Pantheon Books, 1964).

Image: Nam June Paik and Jud Yalkut, Beatles Electroniques, 1966–72, 1992. Single channel video. Courtesy Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI), New York.

About the Author

Diedrich Diederichsen is a Berlin-based critic of art, pop music, theatre, and politics. He is currently Professor for Theory, Practice, and Communication of Contemporary 
Art at the Academy of Fine Arts, Vienna, and was formerly editor at the music magazines Sounds and Spex.

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