mute music

Working on a Decaying Dream

By Pil and Galia Kollectiv, 21 January 2010

In this month's Mute Music Column, Pil and Galia Kollectiv look at Bruce Springsteen in the context of class disintegration and place him firmly in the decadent tradition of Balzac and Huysmans – Á Rebours to Run?

... his great work is a constant elegy on the irretrievable decay of good society; his sympathies are all with the class doomed to extinction...

This is how Engels famously redeemed Balzac. By bitterly describing the declining social power of the aristocracy, despite the French writer's nostalgic loyalty to a doomed class, Balzac went against his own class sympathies and ‘saw the real men of the future'. Engels recognised how deeply conflicted and ironic decadence was as an aesthetic position: to write about the slow death of a world you recognise as your own is to participate in its destruction, to admit that after the vitality seeps out all that is left is artistic appreciation. London is full of such artistic appreciation of what was alive before and is now simply a sign liberated from any social or economic reality. Like an archaeological dig, the city is built over layers of decaying matter: Victorian churches are converted into bachelor pads, car garages are converted into impromptu evangelical churches, suburban warehouses are converted into call-centres. The memory of organised religion, heavy industry and the age of the automobile of the recent past adorns the city in sites of unwitting commemoration, like an urban unconscious.

Image: This gun's for hire?

Decadence, of course, has a vast literary legacy, having given us memorable images from Verlaine's dying empire invaded by a horde of ‘tall, fair-haired Barbarians' to the living dead aristocracy of vampire books (and in this context it is perhaps interesting to observe that the noughties gave us the high school teenage vampire exactly at the point when teenagers lost their uniqueness as a social class in a society that has extended the idea of youth to middle age). Henri Lefebvre observes a ‘curious pleonasm: [...] when a social body disappears and anything remains behind it, we call it a "soul"'. In popular music, decadence is associated with a particular trajectory leading from '70s glam to neo-goth rock, from Bowie to Marilyn Manson, celebrating and lamenting the desperate excesses of a spent social and cultural force.

Bowie lifted his decadent imagery from Isherwood's Weimar stories and mixed it with a sense of the nostalgic and tragic failure of post-imperial Britain. His fascination with fascism in the 1970s stems from this equivalence: the sleepy, deluded protagonists of Isherwood, dreamily living the last days of a dying democracy are like the inhabitants of a decaying, post-war liberal regime which has long lost its influence and power. Marilyn Manson similarly celebrates the last days of a culture that lost its core through excess, consuming more than it is producing. Behind decadence there is always an intricate game of reactionary sentiments and revolutionary aspirations, nostalgia and displacement, moralising and the celebration of sin.

The tradition of decadence is tied to the decline of hegemonic powers, the nobility of Balzac, the class of ‘gentlemen of independent means' applied by Benjamin to Baudelaire, and so on. But could there be a decadence of the left? The Chinese cultural revolution in the '60s was preoccupied with images of decadence, of a revolution that had stagnated and a revolutionary social class that had become blasé. This resulted of course in an excess of revolutionary energy, misguided and misspent, just like the hyper refined senses of the literary aesthete lead to an overindulgence in physical pleasure. In fact, in the aftermath of '68, much of the popular discourse of the '70s in film and music revolved around themes of decadence like the waning of revolutionary forces, the breakdown of the American ideal, the failure of post-war prosperity. This imagery received its most concrete expression in the punk of the latter half of the decade. But maybe this is the time to reclaim a place for an unlikely artist as one of the most prominent poets of the decadence of the 1970s.

Inage: Darkness at the edge of production

Not many think of Bruce Springsteen as part of the tradition of Huysmans or Baudelaire, but just like them Springsteen's work is all about a careful and loving study of the disintegration and gradual corruption of an entire social class. Bruce's blue-collar worker was already a mythical creature by the 1970s, the American dream nothing but a fancy hyper-reality machine. It is so encompassing that nothing can escape it: when Springsteen sings about love he sings about the impossibility of holding on to a romantic ideal based on values of stability, work ethics, family, etc. in a world deeply eroded by the forces of late capitalism. When he sings about violence or murder, he sings about the inability to ever transgress the more real violence of capitalism. If, like in a Ballard novel, there is no psychological depth to Springsteen's characters, it is because their actions and passions are a mirror image of the material world outside them, like the murderer on death row in ‘Nebraska' explains: ‘they wanted to know why I did what I did; well sir I guess there's just a meanness in this world'. And, like in Ballard, the only way out is through a total immersion in the psychosis of losing one's place in the world: the only escape from non-place is through a total devotion to the old technology that breaks up the fabric of places, the ‘suicide machines' of ‘Born to Run'. But, unlike the 1930s blues mythology of the hobo (who escapes from the breakdown of his own rural agricultural class during the great depression), there is no freedom in the running away of Springsteen's ‘tramps like us', just the promise of a more spectacular death.

Perhaps this is the reason for the renewed interest in his work, from the invitation to head Glastonbury last year, to a stream of covers from unlikely indie bands, with the Boss himself reclaiming a place in the avant-garde with a brilliant cover of Suicide's ‘Dream Baby Dream'. Electrelane probably spearheaded the trend, with their cover of ‘I'm on Fire', drowning the heavy urgency of barely articulate freight-train male desire in classy synths and elegant female vocals, while Bat for Lashes' dramatic, slowed down version owes more to Tori Amos' homage than to faded New Jersey backwaters and jeans. The Blankket, aka Steve Kado of Blocks Blocks Blocks, is responsible for the most politically self-conscious take on the song, alongside three more, on his Be Your Own Boss EP, where a kind of lo-fi karaoke reclaims Springsteen from aspirational false consciousness. Springsteen's stadium rock sound paradoxically celebrated the working class culture that was being destroyed by the very powers that gave rise to the mega-stars of the '80s. Kado inverts the irony by deconstructing middle American mythology using the coastal indie language of fairly minimal, DIY guitar and percussion arrangements. But it's probably the post-industrial echo-chamber recording of ‘Prove it All Night' by US Girls (aka Megan Remy) that best captures the hollowed-out heartland ‘soul' of what's been left behind by the death of the world of the impoverished farmers and mechanics that inhabit the Springsteen universe. Recorded using a couple of stomp boxes, a microphone and a reel-to-reel tape, most of Remy's songs sound like an emptied out rock'n'roll, the ghost of Joe Meek haunting a studio after all the girl bands have died. But her method of singing and banging to half-recalled midi tracks of songs she grew up hearing on the radio is especially apt in the case of Springsteen. We are more than used to ironic appropriations of mainstream pop by now, but what stands out about these cover versions is the sincerity with which they pay tribute to the complexity of the Boss.

The Springsteen come-back was related to the rise of the Obama cult in the US and the end of the Bush years. But there is something ironic about America's adoption of Springsteen as a man of hope, since there is none in his songs, which acknowledge that ‘you spend your life waiting for a moment that just don't come', with the conclusion: ‘well don't waste your time waiting'. The music, a hybrid of '70s big rock sounds, '60s singer songwriter intimacy and a kind of hollowed out, shy and echoey vocal track, only drives the despair deeper. Springsteen's musical choices are similar to the ones made by the Manic Street Preachers, one of the most unusual bands to emerge from the early '90s. Even though the songs of the Welsh band dealt with subjects such as the Khmer Rouge, financialisation and Situationism, their music sounded like a watered down version of big hair Californian metal. No one in the ex-mining town of Blackwood wanted to listen to shoe-gazing indie, they reasoned, instead they preferred the glam metal of Hanoi Rocks for the image of hedonism and frivolousness they projected. In the same way, Springsteen's music is an ironic reflection of what America wants to see in itself. It is the dramatic sound of a country that wants to celebrate its ideal of freedom while softly killing its people. In this respect, his choice to cover Suicide is less surprising than it would initially appear: the radical outsider status that Alan Vega and Martin Rev cultivated after the fashion of decadent aesthetes was imposed on the people Springsteen addresses, the very people who were meant to be the salt of the Earth insiders America was made of. It is this forced exodus that his albums, all the way up to last year's Working on a Dream, continue explore, a post-Fordist Pyrrhic victory of immaterial labour over the workers it was meant to liberate.

Pil and Galia Kollectiv <info AT> are London-based artists, writers and curators working in collaboration. They are also lecturers in Fine Art at the University of Kent.