Music and Politics
Interview Diedrich Diederichsen

Diedrich Diedrichsen in Conversation with Stuart Comer
Diedrich Diedrichsen in Conversation with Stuart Comer | Photo: Jacobia Dahm

In November 2014, cultural critic Diedrich Diederichsen and curator Stuart Comer (The Museum of Modern Art) spoke about the relationship between pop music and visual arts, aesthetic experience in the cultural industry, and the special role of performance as part of a series of talks and screenings on the connection between art and politics organized by the Goethe-Institut in New York. Now Diedrich Diederichsen speaks with us about pop music's political potential and its powerlessness, which are fundamental issues in his work.

Goethe-Institut: As a cultural institution, we deal very intensely with the connection between art and politics. A number of questions arise in this context such as: Is pop music art? Or is pop music political? Or could it be that the two possibilities are not mutually exclusive?

Diedrich Diederichsen: Pop music falls right in the middle, at least if you look at it from the perspective of performance theory. To a certain extent, pop musicians are identified with roles that are similar to theatrical roles. On the other hand, they are also associated with their personal identities. There is no need for us to be concerned about whether they are authentic in these roles. There is also no way for us to determine that. The decisive factor is that this is the rule of the game. In this sense, statements made by pop musicians are neither speech acts that demand a direct consequence in reality (“To the Bastille!”), nor are they entirely framed by fictional conventions and thus politically defused in the same way that an actor’s cry of “Fire!” does not cause anyone to leave the theater.

Nowadays almost everyone is downloading their music from the Internet. How exactly has the collapse of the material sound media culture changed pop music's function as a “public good”? Aren't digital forms of media putting pop music in the public arena on a greater scale than ever before, just in a different way?

Pop music is distributed on a broader scale, but it is mainly a private matter related to consumption. The disappearance of the material music object also means that a reference point for public trade has disappeared and has been replaced by an invisible stream. While this also evokes images and paratexts, it does not rely on recipients to make and show the connection between private and public listening, unlike the old form of pop music that revolved around recorded media [tapes, records, CDs].

Does more distribution also mean that pop music has greater political potential?

No. This potential was always about starting controversies, orchestrating differences, or even addressing existing differences in an ostentatious way. The potential lies in agonal and confrontational strategies, which also have to do volume and the sound properties of the feedback. This potential tends to diminish whenever these streams of data flow directly into headphones. The situation is reminiscent of what Paul Valéry described in his 1928 essay entitled “The Conquest of Ubiquity,” namely a future utopia or dystopia in which music would come directly out of the power socket. While this would have the advantage that lonely people could be comforted at any time, the disadvantage is that the world would seem unreal and enchanted as people lost touch with reality.

Is pop even music at all or just performance? And what should we think of this trend? If it is just performance, then what can be done to change this? Are there counter-movements within contemporary pop music and what are they like?

I don't necessarily see it as a bad thing or a flaw that pop music isn't music, but instead the interconnection of visual, auditory, social, performative, textile, and other practices and technologies by the recipients. If fact, this is the classic advantage of pop music. Whereas various art forms and representational traditions are linked by combining the dark room, protection, and celluloid strips through technical-material mechanisms in cinema, in pop music the mobile recipient does this by connecting various objects such as pictures in magazines, posters, clothing styles, and sound recordings that are played on the radio, in public, or at home. The performative aspect is just one component, but it is very important. Of course there are always pop artists who would prefer to be seen as true musicians rather than pop stars: at the same time, no one is standing in their way. After all, there is still music – both inside and outside of the pop music complex.

Sleaford Mods: Why exactly is a bad attitude more important than ever?

We are cast as affective workers on many fronts: We aren't just supposed to do our work well, we are also supposed to identify with it. We should essentially internalize our own bosses and affectively control ourselves. We are supposed to be affective consumers, constantly excited and enthusiastic. Because it is just as emotionally charged acts of refusal, protest, ironically carrying on, or engaging in an emphatic search for the truth are less effective forms of opposition. Instead, the better way to deal with this is by being bored and “pissed off” – by having an offensive bad attitude.

Political movements and important trends in pop music used to come from California. Today California and its many companies mainly represent a new form of information capitalism. If California used to be so far ahead of the game, why is it now giving us things like “Uber”?

That is a dialectic specific to California: certain freedom models are developed early on and tested as part of a counterculture. At the same time, these models are also valued and marketed in a way that confuses the freedom of ideas with the freedom of the market and companies: meaning the powers that shouldn't be free and like to have their innovations subsidized by taxpayers – even in California.

What is the best way to draw attention to music, counterculture, and major economic developments?

You have to make their cultural symptoms legible without violating their artistic nature or exploiting them solely for illustrative purposes for hypotheses and narrations. In historical exhibitions of such developments such as the correlations between hippie culture, Californian ideology, and Internet business, which you alluded to and which Anselm Franke and I curated in Berlin, it is important to find a systematic place from which to tell a solid story. This allows you to comment on and question the story later on, particularly by incorporating works of art, songs, and films.

Diedrich Diederichsen writes essays on music, cinema, theater, art, and politics. He is a professor for theory, practice, and communication of contemporary art at the Academy of Fine Arts, Vienna. He regularly contributes to periodicals and newspapers such as Texte zur Kunst, Die Zeit, die tageszeitung, Der Tagesspiegel, Süddeutsche Zeitung, Theater heute, Artscribe, Artforum, e-flux journal, and Frieze. His most recent book publications include Über Pop-Musik (2014), The Whole Earth – Kalifornien und das Verschwinden des Außen (2013, co-edited with Anselm Franke), The Sopranos (2012), Psicodelia y ready-made (2010), On Surplus Value in Art (2008), and Kritik des Auges (2008), among others.