A Damn Mess
Katy Perry’s “Roar” is a pretty big piece of shit as far as lyrics go. The center of the song, from which it gets its name, is a riff on the phrase “eye of the tiger,” which means something because there was another song that got famous that said that. The rest of it is a collection of cliches and mixed metaphors that similarly sort of mean things, or gesture toward meaningful things, like a realtor trying to sell you on the stories in someone else’s home. At every turn, “Roar” defers making statements of original poetic force in favor of pinging well-worn references—like a musical version of Family Guy, but serving doe-eyed smarm instead of white boy solace.
But does it matter? The song has a strong melody and production values, and I’m only writing this because I’ve had it stuck in my head long enough that I need some form of exorcism. Moreover, does it matter if media—what used to be called “art”—is nothing more than a pastiche of references that manages us to excite once more? Does art need to attempt to create something ex nihilo?
Perry’s form of art is certainly better than the Romantic myth of the creative genius. Surfaces, movements, deferrals—these are all she conjures because that’s all there is anyway. It is the apotheosis of what critics fought to legitimize from about 1964 (I think that’s when Writing and Difference came out?) to the mid-90s.
This is commercialized deconstruction. It is the postmodernist, poststructuralist, post-you-name-it nightmare: that all the systems of thought those “posts-” modify have been done away with, breaking the exchange between the parasite and the host. Deconstruction must be a response to and elaboration of a structure. Here the position of response becomes the system with closure, and one that has been vaccinated against our best critiques of it. To criticize Perry we are stuck in Fred Jameson’s Postmodernism; or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, giving up the capacity for an aesthetic critique in exchange for tying it to the perennial and easy target of capitalism. On that account, “Roar” is not bad because it is bad but because it is a subset or symptom of capitalism.
So—there’s that way out. You can always exit the aesthetic conversation for the cultural one (and that door will lead you from freelancing into grad school). But this song is bad for reasons that have nothing to do with capitalism. Moreover, I am claiming more than “I don’t like it.” It’s bad for exactly the reasons I said: the lyrics fail to meet the minimum requirements of sense, rhyme, meter, and semantic force that I can fairly expect of words in mass media.
The problem we have isn’t that we don’t know how to say things are aesthetically bad but that we are accustomed to attributing the wrong truth value to those claims. Since, I don’t know, Socrates, the Western tradition has agreed that certain types of inquiry (math, logic, sometimes science) have access to objective truth while other questions can only result in subjective truths. Aesthetics has always been the no man’s land where we want to make objective claims but accept we can not. At most we can taxonomize the range of human responses and suggest the different causes of each (see Hume, Burke, Kant). But now that art has given itself over to media and the practice of making a good song—or good image, film, book, etc—is as much a matter of technics as inspiration, we need to claim the capability to say when aesthetic objects are objectively bad.
It’s funny: the post-whateverists fought well against the view that the world is a collection of measurements to be gathered—I’d even say they won the theoretical fight—but in the end it doesn’t matter. The way in which we produce media has changed. The scientism is coming from inside the house. Now it’s not a matter of what theory we use to look at something like “Roar” but whether we respond to the structure of the object itself or discover in it only the secret we plant there. “Roar” is a series of deflections (so it is both trivial and impossible to show that it contradicts itself, or whatever other metaphysical conclusion one might want to demonstrate) wrapped around the industrial practice of making music people buy. That includes not just the technics of recording, producing, and mastering music, but of having data on the objective state of human preferences. I don’t mean a reductive, single, universal “human”—one taste to fit them all, the problem that bedeviled Kant’s efforts to move aesthetics from subjective to objective—but the complex fabric of data on humans that aims, like Borges’s map, to become a 1:1 of the thing it represents. (Unlike Borges’s map this one is accessible from a terminal and so avoids the spatial absurdity of the map being identical to the territory).
The price we pay is that subjective aesthetic judgment—the part where we say “I like it” or “I don’t like it”—has also moved toward the status of objective truths. Thanks to the existence of a shared mass media—the thing that makes it possible for “Roar” to rattle off a series of glib references that everyone will recognize as references, for us to recognize the lowest common denominator as such—the status of the pleasurable is also an objective fact. Look at a Katy Perry video: this is fun. This is objectively fun. This is a reality that transcends the individual yet has the quality of being completely historical and empirical. It might be objectively bad, and you might not partake of the pleasure that is on offer, but you don’t get to subjectively determine what is and is not pleasurable anymore.
This is fun
This is the bargain we’ve been born into. We have more power to say what is bad or good and why, but less to say what we should enjoy. Not that there is no pleasure to be had for people who don’t want to enjoy garbage; the pleasure is now in the act of destroying the garbage. And perhaps it not a coincidence that this is what was first offered by the beat-and-shoot ‘em up video games of my youth. It is certainly not a coincidence that it is shared by some of my favorite writers of my—well, generation is too broad and pretentious—but maybe cohort? I mean guys like Dave Thorpe, Luke O’Neil, and Jeb Lund (and generally but not necessarily others who wasted the best years of their lives on SA) who are best at tearing down their enemies and can do it with instinctual speed. In a landscape of constant cancerous media production there is a need for people who are purely destructive.
Maybe that isn’t a healthy way to approach the world—personally I enjoy it—but the people who argue against criticism are also the ones pumping out the bullshit. These positions are complementary and both contribute to the objective status of aesthetic judgments, the one by producing a statistically useful data set and keeping track of the results, and the other doing the work of Maxwell’s demon and sorting it out. (It’s worth remembering the appearance of Maxwell’s demon in The Crying of Lot 49 to see Pynchon’s paranoia as precursor to today’s media clear-cutting).
So. That’s where I think we are: drowning in trash and fighting for breath. Maybe it’s easier with a theory explaining why things feel like this, that says you’re not wrong to keep slashing your way through the waves of refuse. I don’t know. This could just as well be another one for the ash heap.