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American Grafitti
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Discuss American Graffiti columns in the Arts & Literature forum of Post & Riposte.

Previously in American Graffiti:

  • When Armageddon Looms (May, 1997) by James Surowiecki
    "As the popularity of The X-Files suggests, Americans find paranoia strangely exhilarating. This is nothing new."

  • Is It So Bad to Be Banal? (April, 1997) by James Surowiecki
    "[Suburbia is] the place where America gave up its dreams of transforming the world and settled for mowing the lawn. But it's only if you think that transforming the world is possible that mowing the lawn can seem contemptible. "

  • pavehd picture
    For the band Pavement, it is love songs,
    not love, that are called into question

    by James Surowiecki

    June 12, 1997

    Irony is the dominant mode of expression in American popular culture today, but for all of its cultural authority it has remarkably few defenders. Instead, critics on the right ranging from Hilton Kramer to William Bennett decry the corrosion of values effected by pop culture's perpetual irreverence. On the left, the pages of journals like The Baffler and New Left Review are filled with sharp and pointed critiques of the apathy and the false sense of rebelliousness bred by an ironic culture. A self-proclaimed populist like the art critic Robert Hughes dismisses most of postmodern art as cynical, self-referential nonsense despite the fact that this "nonsense" has more in common with mainstream American culture than anything Picasso ever painted. In his essay "E Unibus Pluram" the writer David Foster Wallace puts the critique this way:

    Make no mistake: irony tyrannizes us. The reason why our pervasive cultural irony is at once so powerful and so unsatisfying is that an ironist is impossible to pin down.... Anyone with the heretical gall to ask an ironist what he actually stands for ends up looking like an hysteric or a prig.

    All of which is undoubtedly stating the obvious. And all of which brings me to Pavement, a rock band whose songs are somehow the products of this culture of persistent irony without really belonging to it. None of Pavement's four full-length CDs has ever made it into the Billboard Top 200. Lead singer and lyricist Stephen Malkmus has yet to appear on Charlie Rose. But no band in the post-Nirvana era (in the past three years, that is to say) has been more important or more influential than Pavement. Like the Velvet Underground -- itself one of Pavement's key musical ancestors -- Pavement has had a cultural impact far beyond its record sales. Its songs have become touchstones for a host of young writers and artists, while its simultaneous distance from and homage to pop culture has seeped into what might loosely be called post-slacker culture. Pavement's musical influence can be heard across the radio dial, from the many indie bands that began as attempts to duplicate their sound to more established bands, like the British outfit Blur, that have altered their style to accommodate Pavement's influence.

    From one perspective, Pavement -- whose latest record is Brighten the Corners (Matador) -- embodies everything that David Foster Wallace thinks is wrong with today's ironists. The group's lyrics seem at times in love with their own obscurity, their songs trail off instead of ending with a satisfying climax, their liner notes make incomprehensible pronouncements such as "FEAR THE PANZERS" and "Thank you, USC Marching Band," and their live performances in the early years featured a drummer who would often stop playing halfway through a set and perch himself on the stage drinking beer. This is an art of skepticism and obliquity. On stage in New York just a couple of weeks ago, Malkmus, too bored to go through the motions of relating to the audience, introduced the band's last song by saying, "Thank you for coming and la la la." There are, needless to say, no love songs on Pavement's records.

    And yet dismissing Pavement is only possible if one mistakes irony for cynicism and self-awareness for camp. Pavement's songs remain permanently dubious about their own authority and permanently skeptical about the possibility of speaking something that could be called Truth, but they never succumb to the corrosive cynicism that denies the value of anything. Steve Malkmus is an ironist but he is not a nihilist.

    Malkmus is not earnest in the way that folk singers or tormented lyric poets are. He approaches the world with as profound a sense of irony as anyone in pop culture today, but it's a sense of irony that doesn't dismiss real emotion so much as it sees the attempt to communicate emotion directly -- at least in words, at least publicly -- as doomed to futility. This is irony as defined by the philosopher Alexander Nehamas, where what is said is not the opposite of what is meant but simply something different from what is meant. Pavement cultivates obliqueness, one might say, in order to show us that nothing is really clear until it has been seen from an angle. It's the love song, not love, that Malkmus calls into question.

    Malkmus's songs sound as if they are written in a private language -- consider the lines "Back on the planet now and I'm beginning to see/Just how you echelon your dreams" -- but he doesn't seem to use that language to exorcise his own personal demons. Strangely, the seeming privateness of the words in fact opens the songs up to a kind of universalism; Malkmus ends up sounding as though he's articulating truths we all know, even if we don't quite understand what he's talking about. When someone sings "I love you" the language is public -- Who hasn't said "I love you"? -- but the emotions are utterly private. (Actually, love songs raise the worrisome possibility that even our deepest emotions are painfully common, but that's a subject for a different essay.) By contrast, when Malkmus sings "We are starlings in the slipstream," the language is private -- Why starlings? What is the slipstream? -- but the feeling ends up being oddly all-embracing. We are, one starts to believe, starlings in the slipstream.

    The picture is more complicated than this, though, since Pavement's guitars often sound more yearning and romantic than Malkmus's voice ever does. In that sense, the authority of the songs depends in part, like all good pop songs, on the accessible beauty of the chords Malkmus and Co. are playing. But the power of these songs emerges also out of what the critic Eliot Weinberger, writing about the poet George Oppen, termed a world where words "from the beginning, meant more or meant less than they said."

    In the interviews he's given about Brighten the Corners, Malkmus cites John Ashbery as inspiration, and the reference is apt. Like Ashbery, Malkmus draws on the detritus of pop culture for his language -- and like Ashbery's poems, Malkmus's lyrics often seem baffling. But what's important about the comparison is that, like Ashbery, Malkmus is not foreclosing the possibility of beauty or emotion so much as he is taking a circuitous route to it and wondering why he needs to write about it. Along the way he's going to show us whatever he sees.

    It's obviously tempting to yearn for a prelapsarian American past when we were free of the curse of irony. David Foster Wallace, for one, ends "E Unibus Pluram" by expressing the hope that a new generation of artists might emerge who would be willing to "risk accusations of sentimentality, melodrama. Of overcredulity. Of softness." But the polarities set up by the critics of irony are too strong, the black-and-whiteness of their world view too clear. Irony, one suspects, is a genie that is impossible to put back in the bottle. (In any case, it certainly escaped centuries ago, so the past these critics are yearning for is an old past indeed.) The task that really matters is the reconciliation of irony with sincerity, the recognition that skepticism does not equal paralysis. It's that kind of accommodation that, in their best moments, the songs of Pavement gesture toward. It's also that kind of accommodation that's characteristic of American pragmatism. Don't follow ideas to their logical consequences, Malkmus seems to say. Just follow them until you need to follow something else.

    James Surowiecki is a freelance writer who has written for such publications as Lingua Franca, The Village Voice, and The Boston Phoenix.

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