Saturday, April 25, 2009

Frank Zappa, Commodity Logic, and the Dawn of Postmodernism

So there I was, puffing away on the treadmill, preparing for bicycle season (Team Slow Ride, the crew with which I so inelegantly ride, will be doing a Milwaukee-to-Chicago run this summer, and believe me, I'm in no kind of shape for anything more than a downhill roll to the local ice-cream truck). I'd wedged Frank Zappa's autobiography into the treadmill's little magazine-holder thing, and was a chapter or two into it when I ran across the following passage from Zappa's account of his blue collar, small town teenage years in the 1950s:

One day I happened across an article about Sam Goody's record store in Look magazine which raved about what a wonderful merchandiser he was. The writer said that Mr. Goody could sell anything—and as an example he mentioned that he had even managed to sell an album called Ionization. The article went on to say something like "This album is nothing but drums—it's dissonant and terrible; the worst music in the world." Ahh! Yes! That's for me! I wondered where I could get my hands on a record like that, because I was living in El Cajon, California—a little cowboy kind of town near San Diego.

Zappa couldn't find a copy in El Cajon, but one day, when visiting a friend in nearby La Mesa, he hit the record store and paydirt, in that order:

After shuffling through the rack and finding a couple of Joe Huston Records, I made my way toward the cash register and happened to glance at the LP bin. I noticed a strange looking black-and-white album cover with a guy on it who had frizzy gray hair and looked like a mad scientist [Zappa, whose father worked in a metallurgy shop, had a kind of mad science vibe to him at the time, and made of the mixing of chemicals and the blowing up of shit the main non-musical activities of his youth]. I thought it was great that a mad scientist had finally made a record, so I picked it up—and there it was the record with "Ionization" on it. The author of the Look article had gotten it slightly wrong—the correct title was The Complete Works of Edgard Varèse, Volume I...

The LP cost a princely $5.95, and Zappa had only $3.75 to his name. He made an offer, and, since the record seemed unsellable, the clerk let him buy it. The record was an ear-opener, and soon Zappa was laying in a supply of Stravinsky, Webern, and the like, along with the usual teeny-bopper stuff, and used blues records from old jukeboxes. "Since I didn't have any formal training," writes Zappa, "it didn't make any difference to me if I was listening to Lightnin' Slim, or a vocal group called The Jewels... or Webern, or Varèse, or Stravinsky. To me it was all good music."

Anyone who's spent time listening to Zappa's music can tell you it's the result of the collapse of the high culture/popular culture distinction — a collapse typical of what we think of as postmodernism. But what's interesting here is how Zappa starts on the road to being a postmodern musician: it has everything to do with the dominance of commodity logic in American culture. Firstly, there's the article in Look, which presents us with what, in historical terms, is a very strange kind of heroism: Sam Goody is no knight in shining armor, nor is he a holy man or a martyr. He's a hero because he can, Midas-like, convert anything he touches into a commodity to be sold (even something so resolutely non-commodifiable as Varèse's experimental music). It is only because the tale of the triumph of the Knight of Commodification over the Dragon of Aesthetic Innovation was being sung in the pages of Look that Zappa heard of Varèse in the first place. Secondly, there's the actual triumph of markets and commodities in midcentury America: the country was well on its way to being the everything-all-the-time-if-you-can-pay-for-it nation it is today, and you could even find a Varèse album in a shitkicker county if you traveled a town or two over. Also, there's the sense that the only value is the market or commodity value. What's the value of Varèse? Only what the market will bear, by the logic of commodities. And, since the market in La Mesa wouldn't bear $5.95, Zappa was actually able to afford the album.

Moreover, since young Zappa wasn't exposed to any system of cultural hierarchy other than the commodity, he encountered all music as equal (all commodities are in some sense exchangeable -- lead, feathers, fighter jets, bassoons, church windows, first folios of Shakespeare, truck tires, Van Gogh paintings, whatever: pile them up high enough and you can trade one for another). In another time and place he'd probably have learned one or another kind of snobbery. I mean, if you read old issues of Gramophone from the 1920s, the world of music is pretty clearly split into classical, on the one hand, and everything else, which was seen as worthless crap, on the other). So: the logic of commodities, where everything is curiously the same, was the only logic by which music was sorted for young Zappa, pure product of America that he was. And it was, I suppose, from a million little actions like Zappa's purchase of Varèse that the collapse of cultural hierarchies, of Webern-good, Lightinin' Slim-bad, followed. It's been said that with the triumph of market forces, all that is solid melts into air. It turns out that includes aesthetic hierarchy.

By the way: I'm ashamed to admit I didn't know, until reading Frank Zappa's book, that he and Captain Beefheart hung out together in high school. And thinking about them together reminds me that the guy who first turned me on to Belgian Surrealism, Michel Delville, is not only the editor of a book on Captain Beefheart: he plays in a band called Trank Zappa Grappa in Varese, which is well worth checking out.