You Can’t Teach Heart

Short lecture on the figure of the pop star, our affective ties with it, and the world-building of Pop imagery. The lecture deals with the contingent and somewhat pragmatic uses (that may be considered as a re-codification) of the figure of the Pop star and the imagery associated with it, especially when it comes to the needs and pressures that various subjectivities are faced with within contemporary capitalism.

“Strangely enough, the world of Xtina’s “Dirrty” covers a different altitude. The heights of the abandoned skyscrapers are substituted for underground basements that maze in a disorienting manner, leaving behind the once dedicated functions of the spaces they occupy. If the sauna-like furnishing of Britney’s environment still upholds the functionalist framework, it is only to accommodate the already existing micro-climate conditions — to help make sense of them; to make the rooms seem unbearable by design and thus frame the constant and unavoidable heat and moisture as a luxury or even decadence. Yet Xtina’s basement-dwelling, dark, damp and flooded with the rising seawater, leaves behind even these last remnants of making sense. It is radically anarchic and representative of a different post-apocalyptic class experience.”

Prepared for: 25th International Festival of Computer Arts, Maribor / ŠUMx discussions, 12 & 13 October 2019

Talks by Louis Armand, Marko Bauer, Vít Bohal, Dustin Breitling, Peli Grietzer, Max Hampshire, Mark Horvath, Adam Lovasz, Andrej Tomažin, Bogna M. Konior, Primož Krašovec, Lukáš Likavčan, Domen Ograjenšek, Paul Seidler, Maks Valenčič, Tadej Vindiš. Lecture performance by Agustina Andreoletti. Concert by drone emoji.


The thing about pop stars is that they never seem to have it easy. The lenses through which we observe and consume them are already shifted, steered toward a meiotic sight (and consequentially image), where not a lot is thought or reflected, but a lot judged and misconstrued. “Misconstrued” … that is something a pop star would say when addressing the recent rumours. But besides that, not a lot can be said about them. 

They are magnets for attention, even though the height of their influence has seemingly passed — now influencers garner attention on par with that of stars; they are elusive beings, chronicling the shifting currents of the middle class, their spending power, attentional prowess, and tastes; and their goal is seemingly to reach legendary status, when exclusive wedding coverages and photos of newborns can easily financially secure their great-grandchildren’s college tuitions.

My first exposure to the pop star phenomenon was exactly at the point when after a short dip in its discursive permeance it suddenly gained a considerable boost in popularity.   

I consider this to be the heyday of the “pop star”. It spans somewhere between 2000 and 2007, a personal demarcation of mine being Britney Spears’ sophomore album “Oops I did it again” and her somewhat shaky comeback with the appropriately titled “Blackout”, marking the pop star’s return or recovery from what the media deemed a “breakdown“ (i.e. “the pop star’s fall from grace”).

This period also coincides with my coming of age, and just like Britney’s career I too started out sweet and full of life, went through a wild phase of mischief and rebellion and ended up an exhausted, anxiety-ridden individual — “Oops I did it again” (2000), “In the zone” (2003), and “Blackout” (2006). Even though I wasn’t always an avid fan of miss Spears, we did manage to die our hair black at the same time, although mine did not end up shaven off.

I’m mentioning this in order to establish a parallelism of sorts that could help represent how a subjective making of sense can be established through affective ties with a (mass)cultural image or figure. In the sociologic sense, this might be understood as acting upon the need for association with powerful others (in other words, a need for associative power). However, this aspect approaches celebrity as a marketable product, which it undoubtedly is, yet accounts for the affective ties only in a cynical manner, where fandom is considered a mere advantage or benefit that a “less favored” individual might have from being invested in the life and work of a pop star: 

“[The fan] is allowed to become the confidant of the ‘celebrity’, perhaps recreating thereby an echo of the warmth once gained from the trust of a parent, and so comes into possession of ‘knowledge’ which offers a pathetically false promise of increased social standing, especially presumably among those not so favored.”

I would agree with this premise, yet at the same time emphasise that it does not touch upon the ‘fantastic’ side of this power relationship. The thing about an affective investment of this kind is that it can be contingent, in the sense that identification or active consuming of the image or figure is not a necessary condition for the world-building that it implies. The international popularity of Céline Dion is a good example of this. She might be culturally out of place in many regions, but she has nevertheless managed (consistently I might add) to secure for herself a position as a beloved pop songstress all over the globe, even though this popularity is often tied to unconventional yet highly specific functions that her music may carry out (in contrast to the usual indistinct function of being identified with and consumed, as Snail’s description would entail):

“But once the selector (DJ in American parlance) began to play a Céline Dion song, the crowd went buck wild and some people started firing shots in the air. … I also remember always hearing Céline Dion blasting at high volume whenever I passed through volatile and dangerous neighborhoods, so much that it became a cue to me to walk, run or drive faster if I was ever in a neighborhood I didn’t know and heard Céline Dion mawking over the airwaves. […] to quote one fellow, ‘Bad man have fi play love tune fi show ’dat them a lova too.’”

What all this means is that there may not be a community (let’s say, a fan club) with whom you identify with, associate and thus gain social power through, you might not consider yourself a fan, not even somebody that is paying attention, yet you still find yourself affectively tied to a pop figure that garners the fleeting affects of your wandering soul, even when this garnering is of somewhat pragmatic nature. In the case of this avid listener of Céline Dion, what is gained is the ability to express that he is not only a tough guy but also a lover, which is not really something that can be considered as power through association but more as pop-cultural mimicry of sorts, eclectic appropriation and reworking of audio-visual codes.

Power alone can not fully explain the symbolic allure and the complex fantastic reworking of the pop star as figure. The status of affectivity needs to be considered in its own right and not only as means of functioning power in order for the figure of the pop star to be fully understood. Not to be too cliché, but it should probably be considered in the manner of Spinoza’s outcry that “no one has […] laid down the limits to the powers of the body, that is, no one has as yet been taught by experience what the body can accomplish solely by the laws of nature, in so far as she is regarded as extension”, which still (strangely enough) rings true. But as the new status of affectivity is needed to fully understand the pop star as figure so could an understanding of the pop star as figure contribute to a new status of affectivity. So where to begin is more a question of interest and choice than any form of conceptual consistency. 

***

In this respect I want to turn to two music videos from the early 2000s: Britney Spears’ “I’m A Slave 4 You” and Christina Aguilera’s “Dirrty”.  Britney Spears’ “Slave 4 You” portrays the starlet as a slave to her music, inclined to dance until her strengths give way, while Christina’s “Dirrty” portrays the pop star as a fighter in a grimy underground fight club — a victorious fighter of course — that does not shy away from the prospect of getting dirty. Both videos are set in a post-apocalyptic urban setting and present a stark departure from the innocent image that propelled the two artists into stardom a few years before. But more than that, the imagery of the videos harbours a world-building that could be considered as echoing the internal changes that the United States went through culturally and politically at the time, as well as the affective changes in subjectivity that took place after it. So as the pop stars’ transition into maturity apparently necessitates a post-apocalyptic frame that could make sense of it, so does the  contemporary subjective condition apparently necessitate a stark emotional break, or even breakdown, in order to breach the damning transitional inertia and become a fully operational and high-performing subjectivity that we all feel pressured to become.

source: Britney Spears, “Britney Spears – I’m A Slave 4 U”, YouTube, 2009.

In “Slave 4 You” people lay around lethargically, covered with glistening sweat high above the sea drenched soil. They occupy club-like saunas, where clothes are mandatory, but so is taking them off — seductively, if possible. The end of the world has never looked so good. Yet the highs of their drug-fuelled ecstasy are accompanied by crashes and falls attributed to heat exhaustion and dehydration, which is why high energy dancing often leads to seizure-like gasping for air. It is as if the world has ended 20 years ago, yet the MDMA has just kicked in.

source: Britney Spears, “Britney Spears – I’m A Slave 4 U”, YouTube, 2009.

Strangely enough, the world of Xtina’s “Dirrty” covers a different altitude. The heights of the abandoned skyscrapers are substituted for underground basements that maze in a disorienting manner, leaving behind the once dedicated functions of the spaces they occupy. If the sauna-like furnishing of Britney’s environment still upholds the functionalist framework, it is only to accommodate the already existing micro-climate conditions — to help make sense of them; to make the rooms seem unbearable by design and thus frame the constant and unavoidable heat and moisture as a luxury or even decadence. Yet Xtina’s basement-dwelling, dark, damp and flooded with the rising seawater, leaves behind even these last remnants of making sense. It is radically anarchic and representative of a different post-apocalyptic class experience.

source: Christina Aguilera, “Christina Aguilera – Dirrty (Official Music Video) ft. Redman, YouTube, 2011.

It is completely possible that both music videos partake in a common world. They showcase a similar post-apocalyptic, Mad Max take on LA club culture, where occupying VIP sections and upholding the mystique of inaccessibility and reclusion of the 2000s pop star is left behind and exchanged for a moment of “giving in” — becoming part of the masses. It is clear that Britney and Christina are not afraid to get their hands “dirrty” anymore, they declare their absolute dedication to the collective body (even though the wording might be questionable at times — I’m referring to the “slave 4 you” part), and as they do that they shed their status as icons within a visual regime of mass consumption and become champions of the people (well, of sorts). 

source: Christina Aguilera, “Christina Aguilera – Dirrty (Official Music Video) ft. Redman, YouTube, 2011.

This is meant most literally in the case of “Dirrty”. After Christina successfully maneuvers her way from the dressing room to the fighting ring, a distance that you would expect to be rather short, but due to the mazing of the subterranean dwelling it apparently takes a drive with a dirt bike and a ride in a metal cage in order to get there, she gains the support of her people by way of fighting her challenger. This is something that is completely missing in Britney’s “I’m a Slave 4 You”. There, positions of authority are not won or elected, they are simply as they are. The movement and dancing are not aggressive, competitive and does not act out or resemble a fight (as is the case in Christina’s “Dirrty”). It is ritualistic — the wrestling outfits and dirty urban ware replaced by designer clothing, even if (due to the unfortunate circumstance of the world ending) of many seasons past; and the movement and dancing rather reenacting or symbolically repeating the original partition of roles and responsibilities (without any tension or discontent). We simply see the rhythmic exchanging of moments of active coordinated dancing, and moments of lethargic yet serene laying around, a rhythm that is interrupted only by the culminative “letting go”, when Britney softly falls onto the hands of devoted worshipers that lift her body towards the soft rays of sun, rays that are of course absent in the urban caverns of Christina’s “Dirrty”.  

source: Britney Spears, “Britney Spears – I’m A Slave 4 U”, YouTube, 2009.

Britney’s sunlit condo is infused with spiritualism that the occupants of the anarchic world of “Dirrty” can’t afford. It is quite obvious that the sauna-like club setting is for the people of a common state of mind — a post-racial cocktail club, where drink is scarce, but the draught is compensated with tender caressing that utilises the inevitable droplets of sweat. You can see people transferring the precious liquid from the neck to the lips, an act of intimacy that is foremost hydrating. This is something that completely frames the sexual character of the imagery — as if implying that sex is not a means of procreation, but of personal survival, a tender and personal, yet at the same time economic and pragmatic exchange of liquids that the dry heights of the post-apocalyptic world so desperately lack.  

source: Britney Spears, “Britney Spears – I’m A Slave 4 U”, YouTube, 2009.

Something similar can be said for the sexual character of the imagery in Christina’s video. It is no less explicit, and it definitely bears the mark of its time, yet it is also overtly aggressive and even mechanical at times. The strenuous thrusts and twerks struggle to follow the tempo that mimics that of a fully automated factory. There is simply no time for any sort of tenderness. The movements are harsh, aggressive, well-timed, and partners are picked and acknowledged solely by their ability to keep up. Attraction and intimacy are in this case mere notions of the past, while sex falls somewhere between the fighting and the twerking, blending the line between them — a form of labour that seems to follow a single function: maintaining the anarchic relations and positions, where flurries, bodybuilders, twerkers and livestock can coexist as a tightly knit community. You could not find such diversity at the higher altitudes.   

source: Christina Aguilera, “Christina Aguilera – Dirrty (Official Music Video) ft. Redman, YouTube, 2011.

So, if the two videos can be seen as depicting a common world, they jointly depict a society that is starkly divided: two competing factions, both with their own unique value system, and both with their unique sense of immediacy. At the time of their release the videos were perceived as the pop stars’ turning away from their innocent teen image, yet looking back, it is hard to distinguish their post-apocalyptic imagery and world-building from the discourse surrounding the heavily publicised institutional changes that the States went through after 9/11. 

More than any direct correlation, the mere fact of coinciding (Spears’ video filmed at the beginning of September of 2001 and released on the 24th of the same month, whereas Christina’s “Dirrty” premiers one year later on September 30th, almost as a form of commemoration of the initial post-apocalyptic reworking of the teenage pop image and the collective imaginary surrounding it) points at the visual traces of what was already there before the changes, what merged with and catalysed the happening surrounding the trauma, but (at least for me) most importantly what still lingers in the pop-cultural consciousness that has over the years become even more entrenched in global flows of visual tropes and mass libidinal investments. And with this I have in mind the affective changes — burnouts and collective mood disorders — that mark the transitional “apocalyptic” breakdown of subjectivity, that is (just like Britney and Christina before it) on its path toward maturity within contemporary capitalism.

You might not be able to teach heart, but you can definitely break it in.


Author: Domen Ograjenšek

Writer, art critic, curator, PhD candidate at the Akademie der bildenden Künste Wien

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