Ariel Pink – pom pom

pom pom

Ariel Pinkpom pom 4AD CAD 3440 (2014)

Ariel Pink’s pom pom, which is credited just to him without the “Haunted Graffiti” moniker, picks up pretty much where Mature Themes left off.  Take “Picture Me Gone,” which draws from a “Heroes and Villains”-like Beach Boys melody with 1970s-styled (Surf’s Up) Beach Boys keyboards.  “Jello-o” has little bits of glam rock guitar riffs, even a fake wash of arena crowd noise and applause.  But, of course, there are lots of reference points to 1980s U.S. culture, particularly child-like things, epitomized by probably the best song on the album, “Dinosaur Carebears,” which goes so far as to incorporate elements of circus calliope sounds with a reference to popular stuffed animal toys (and associated media empire).

Not everyone is completely on board with pom pom or anything else Ariel Pink has done.  Another reviewer wrote:

“I’m caught in the awkward position of having to simultaneously respect his goofy zeal and quirky taste in lo-fi texture and malign the unctuousness of his low-register Bowie vocal put-ons and his complete aversion to a perspective that isn’t totally nostalgic for the novelty value of the freakin’ 1980s. Enough with the ’80s, folks! They didn’t work the first time! Christ, at least with a Taylor Swift album you don’t have to invest so much brainspace wondering about irony!”

It is somewhat difficult to accept this position.  In longing for “upfront cynicism”, it seems precisely wrongheaded.  The goal of “not having to invest brainspace” seems like a cop out.  The demand for consciousness — that “awkward position” — is what Ariel Pink does so well.  Slavoj Žižek wrote (Absolute Recoil) that every revolutionary event forks into the truly revolutionary path that seems to exceed its causes (influences) and a path of conservative reaction to it that tries to preserve the old order, “Renormalising the breakthrough.”  The historical example Žižek gave in music (probably drawn from Theodor Adorno‘s Philosophie der neuen Musik [Philosophy of Modern Music]) was to contrast Arnold Schönberg — the revolutionary path — with Igor Stravinsky — the conservative reaction.  In pop music, Taylor Swift (1989) represents one of the conservative reactions to the revolutionary content of Ariel Pink’s music.  She hardly goes beyond a kind of Bryan Adams “Summer of ’69” nostalgia that is totally and completely sentimental, and rekindles old, pleasurable feelings to re-inflate the past on its original terms.  Pink mostly avoids sentimentality, though there seems to be more of it on pom pom than probably any of his earlier recordings.

What Ariel Pink does with his music is a lot like what has been termed “kynicism”:

“We must distinguish th[e] cynical position strictly from what [Peter] Sloterdijk calls kynicism. Kynicism represents the popular, plebeian rejection of the official culture by means of irony and sarcasm: the classical kynical procedure is to confront the pathetic phrases of the ruling official ideology — its solemn, grave tonality — with everyday banality and to hold them up to ridicule, thus exposing behind the sublime noblesse of the ideological phrases the egotistical interests, the violence, the brutal claims to power. This procedure, then, is more pragmatic than argumentative: it subverts the official proposition by confronting it with the situation of its enunciation; it proceeds ad hominem (for example when a politician preaches the duty of patriotic sacrifice, kynicism exposes the personal gain he is making from the sacrifice of others).

“Cynicism is the answer of the ruling culture to this kynical subversion: it recognizes, it takes into account, the particular interest behind the ideological universality, the distance between the ideological mask and the reality, but it still finds reasons to retain the mask. This cynicism is not a direct position of immorality, it is more like morality itself put in the service of immorality. . . .” (from The Sublime Object of Ideology)

This distinction might explain the monologue delivered by the late 1980s serial killer and junk bond broker character Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale) in the film adaptation American Psycho (2000), based on the Bret Easton Ellis book, when he was pontificating about Huey Lewis & The News:

“Their early work was a little too new wave for my tastes, but when Sports came out in ’83, I think they really came into their own, commercially and artistically. The whole album has a clear, crisp sound, and a new sheen of consummate professionalism that really gives the songs a big boost. He’s been compared to Elvis Costello, but I think Huey has a far more bitter, cynical sense of humor.”

If we take Bale’s murderous Wall Street “psycho” character’s comments at face value, as we probably should, then the “cynical” aspects of Huey Lewis & The News’ music represents, not immoral values, but a kind of morality that happens to service the needs of a cartoonishly immoral status quo power structure, of which the monstrous Wall Street serial killer symbolizes.  Taylor Swift’s music kind of embodies the same sort of cynicism used to reaffirm today the ruthless, parasitic hedonism of “1989”.  Any cynicism found in the “retro” nostalgia of her 1989 album just reaffirms how little has actually changed since the year its title refers to.  Ariel Pink is a more humane reconfiguration of the elements that made up the 1980s.  His very reconfiguration of those elements illustrates the disturbing social contexts in which those elements arose, when the middle class began to be fooled by them.

Is what Ariel Pink does unprecedented?  Well, no.  At least not entirely.  Another reviewer wrote:

“I place Ariel Pink as the latest in a long pantheon of winkingly insincere popsmiths from Los Angeles.  Maybe it’s the proximity to all those actors, but LA has been ground zero for musical acts that combine an unwillingness to reveal anything personal and an emphasis on parodic humor. The tradition starts with Frank Zappa in the sixties, continues with Oingo Boingo in the eighties, Beck in the nineties, and we find ourselves here today with Ariel Pink and the impending release of “pom pom,” his third album for 4AD Records.”

This is a more interesting take on where Ariel Pink fits in the context of modern Western pop music.  Yet, it perhaps fails to give Pink credit for how he differs from some of those other acts.  If you look closely at Frank Zappa, for instance, he often mocked the counter-culture (We’re Only In It for the Money).  You can look at Zappa as either a straight-up conservative-libertarian subverter of the counter-culture, or else somebody within it arguing about tactical errors.  Sloterdijk appropriately called this kind of cynicism “enlightened false consciousness”.  That was still somewhat the case with Beck, who broke out of obscurity applying hip-hop to alternative rock at a time (just) before hip-hop became nearly synonymous with mainstream pop music.  Beck relied on the “weirdness” of his appropriations, which in turn depended upon them being outside of mainstream culture.  All those things are worthy in their own ways.  Yet they aren’t quite the same as what happens on pom pom.  Pink is taking up elements of the dominant culture of the past, stuff like The Bee Gees (once mature, but before disco) and AM Gold, and twisting it around.  He is reaching outside the counter-culture.  This is something altogether more daring.  Rather than creating or refashioning a culture that exists strictly separate from the province of dominant commercial media, while maintaining that separation, Pink is grabbing bits of its history and pushing them into a counter-cultural setting, across the gap between them.  Still, he’s straying less from the counter-culture than he used to, which for some will make pom pom more appealing, though at the same time that takes something away from the radical potential of his music.

A better historical comparison for Pink’s music is the French nouvelle vague film movement, which took elements of old Hollywood movies and refashioned them from a new perspective.  This carried through to Jean-Luc Godard‘s much-discussed, multi-part video project Histoire(s) du cinéma (1997-98), which has uncanny resemblances to at least some of what Ariel Pink does in music.  It took fragments of cinema history and warped, overlapped and modulated them to fit entirely new film essays.  As Colin MacCabe wrote in a biography of Godard, the “auteur theory” of the nouvelle vague cinema journal Cahiers du cinema was “the only theory of the author which is formulated from the point of view of the audience, and indeed explicitly formulated as a method to move from the position of the audience to that of the artist.”  As something like the “ultimate” connoisseur of pop of the recent past, much like Godard in cinema, Pink uses that knowledge to become a pop artist himself.  And just like some of the nouvelle vague filmmakers took Cinémathèque Française co-founder Henri Langlois‘ use of juxtaposition in film curation into the fabric of films themselves, Pink takes disparate forms of music (60s sunshine pop and 80s goth rock, for instance) and combines them to create meaning through juxtaposition.  Pink uses kynicism more than most of the original nouvelle vague directors though.

The closest musical comparisons would be the tropicálistas (for instance, Tom Zé’s “Parque industrial”) or Van Dyke ParksSong Cycle.  Those were brief moments in the late 1960s.  Is Pink like a second coming of the revolutionary fervor of the late 60s?  Perhaps.

Ariel Pink remains one of the more interesting musical acts of his day.  Rather than fall into the trap of “beautiful soul syndrome”, passively moralizing at a distance, he’s actively critiquing the influences he appropriates.  Take “Black Ballerina.” It’s a strange tale of desire, and being denied.  Pink is mocking the libidinal excesses of pathetic loser males.  Yet at the same time, he’s kind of mocking himself, because he wouldn’t really have a clue what he’s talking about unless he was kind of one of them too.  Aside from the specifics circumstances that song is about, it captures much of what Ariel Pink’s musical project as a whole conveys to its audience.  This is music that speaks of empowerment to actually share in the control of the meaning of dominant popular culture.  It uses the forms of old-ish popular music and allows audiences to enjoy the superficial pleasures of the sweet harmonies, lovely melodies, and all that, but at the same time it cuts apart and undermines those pleasures, suggesting an aim at a larger, deeper project.  It is that negation of its influences that makes this so very intriguing, by rendering problematic his influences and the desires they represent.

Why mine from 80s pop?  Well, Luc Boltanski and Ève Chiapello wrote a book called  Le Nouvel esprit du capitalisme (1999).  According to their thesis, “The ideal capitalist unit is portrayed as a self-organized team that has externalized its costs onto sub-contractors and deals more in knowledge and information than in manpower or technical experience. *** [However,] the freedoms of this new organization of labour come at the expense of the sense of security . . . .  *** Boltanski and Chiapello proceed to outline a model of the new moral framework of this emergent order, whose ideal figure is a nomadic ‘network-extender’, light and mobile, tolerant of difference and ambivalence, realistic about people’s desires, informal and friendly, with a less rigid relationship to property — for renting and not absolute ownership represents the future.”  Isn’t this the context for almost everything Ariel Pink does?  Rather than make “new” musical concepts he relies on others who have already done this.  And 80s pop music strikes the perfect balance between rejected, “valueless” raw material and something recent enough to find resonance in the minds of listeners.   The lack of security in contemporary capitalism is represented by the ways in which he picks up the trashy remnants of forgotten consumer culture, as if renting them, and applies his historical knowledge of them to create culture value through recombinations.  In this way Pink might almost be seen as a consummate capitalist.  And yet, that rather superficial view seems like entirely the wrong label for him.  It is more likely that he’s engaged in a dialog with capitalism, but his music goes in another direction, aware of capitalist strictures but mocking and undermining them as he goes in his banal application of its most widely used mechanisms — almost like the lulz of the hacker collective Anonymous.  While he has formally approached the techniques of modern capitalism, at the same time he violates the unwritten injunctions that sustain it.  The tacit exploitation and elitism is gone, in its place something that rather explicitly undermines itself at every turn, working with scraps of cultural legacies that are acknowledged as scraps, with a kynicist leveling effect that reveals the supposedly enlightened vision of contemporary capitalism as basically just as stupidly crass as the desires of a juvenile fuck-up like Pink.  He isn’t extending the “network” of 80s pop influence to reinforce what it stood for.  He is dry-humping it to death.

There are plenty of duds on pom pom, but Ariel Pink hits more than he misses.  His technical proficiency certainly keeps growing.  Here’s hoping this is just one more stop on a longer career of great music.

Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti – Mature Themes

Mature Themes

Ariel Pink’s Haunted GraffitiMature Themes 4AD CAD3230CD (2012)

You could say that Ariel Pink’s music is based on some form of corollary to historian Marcus Lee Hansen‘s so-called “Hansen’s Law” about immigrant assimilation (it’s really just a theory): “What the son wishes to forget the grandson wishes to remember.”  That’s because he dredges up material from the 1960s through the 1980s to re-purpose for his own music.  But there is more to his music than just that.  He constantly juxtaposes high and low culture.  This guy has studied pop culture.  On the opener, “Kinski Assassin,” he intones, “who sunk my battleship / I sunk my battleship.”  This recalls a TV commercial from the 1980s for the game “Battleship” in which a kid cries out, “You sunk my battleship!”  But elsewhere in the song Pink is singing, “We’ll always have Paris,” like a line from Casablanca (1942).  Fitting these together, with lines like “Blonde seizure bombshells and the blowjobs of death / Bring on the bog and she-males hopped up on meth” refuse to let this come to any sort of equilibrium.  At times it almost does.  “Only in My Dreams” seems almost like The Byrds.  Then “Farewell American Primitive” references the music collector obsession with “American Primitive” guitarist John Fahey.  But Pink sings, “fuck it, I’m high…”  He also drops in lines like “Native American Immigrant” and “If that isn’t me, North Korea is me.”  In all this, Pink refuses to let his music settle into any sort of comfort zone.  The juxtapositions of the incompatible just keep coming.  This is basically the same approach that the radical elements of the French nouvelle vague movement in cinema pursued half a century earlier.  After all, isn’t the aesthetic that Ariel Pink deploys here almost the same as what Godard did on Filme socialisme (2010), with its oversaturated digital video clips, sudden jumps to different characters, and offhand comments on philosophy, art, and work?

And let’s clear something up.  The term “hypnagogic pop” has been thrown around a lot to describe music like Ariel Pink’s.  But the term is a bit misleading when applied here.  The philosopher Hegel wrote about a concept that became known as “beautiful soul syndrome”, in reference to Goethe’s chapter “Confessions of a Beautiful Soul” in Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahr [Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship].  Hegel took up Goethe’s story to expand upon it and explain the vacuity in the forgiveness of evil by the “beautiful soul”.  As a J.N. Findlay wrote about Hegel’s Phänomenologie des Geistes [Phenomeology of Spirit]:

“It [the “beautiful soul”] then tries to cultivate goodness in solitary isolation from the actual social whole. *** The very rejection of objectivity is the only achievement of the ‘beautiful soul’, and is held to be the greatest triumph of its self-conscious freedom. It flees from concrete moral action, and luxuriates in a state of self-hypnotized inactivity.”

In this context, the jarring discontinuities of Pink’s music become the key to its success–the reason it avoids “beautiful soul syndrome”.  There is always the threat of a lulled hypnosis, but that is always and consistently disrupted by the strange juxtapositions he invokes, which almost everywhere in the real world are held part.  Mature Themes is maybe less jarring than much of Pink’s prior work.  The violent discontinuities are still there, though, more subtly.  Because they force the listener to confront and reevaluate the elements, they are what keep the album from becoming mere inactive nostalgia for subjective experience.

Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti – Scared Famous

Scared Famous

Ariel Pink’s Haunted GraffitiScared Famous Human Ear Music HEAR0003 (2007)

Originally part of a two-cassette, self-released album package Scared Famous/FF>> (2002) recorded in 2000-2001 and available to practically no one it seems, Scared Famous was (re-)released in 2007 in slightly different form.  The liner notes to this later version say it features selections from the original release.  It seems that some songs from both the original Scared Famous and FF>> cassettes are present here (at least based on the song titles), plus some other material apparently not previously released (“Politely Declined,” “An Appeal From Heaven”).  FF>> was re-released in 2010 in what seems to be its original form, overlapping in content with the Scared Famous 2007 re-release.

Let’s look at this music in context.  This is, after all, music that is all about context.  During basically Ariel Pink’s entire lifetime, there has been a retrenchment of power in the hands of the already rich and powerful.  This came at the expense of the middle class (and the poor), undoing the social contract of the New Deal era as complacency set in among the middle classes who forgot about the militancy that forced the concessions that made their “golden age” after WWII possible.  Pink’s music, mostly recorded entirely by himself on rudimentary equipment in his own apartment, but also with guest R. Stevie Moore (their original collaborative activity is omitted from this re-release), in a sense challenges middle class complacency.  In its own way, this music is very militant.  It appropriates musical elements that epitomize the period in which the social transformations that began stripping the middle class of their social status really came forward in an obvious way.  More to the point, this borrows from the sort of music that represented the time when working people enjoyed the highest social standing they ever received in the industrialized world.  This was the music of their glory days, played back when the glory was practically all gone — destroyed.  But since then it all collapsed.  Pink reboots it.

Antonin Artaud wrote an essay, “En finir avec les chefs-d’oeuvre [An End to Masterpieces],” in Le Théâtre et son double [The Theater and Its Double] (1938) — reprinted and translated in Antonin Artaud, Selected Writings (1976).  He advocated for a “theater of cruelty” that had “the power to influence the aspect and formation of things” utilizing physical understanding and trance “as if in a whirlwind of higher forces”.  He was determined to address the power the past held over the future:

“One reason for the asphyxiating atmosphere in which we live without possible escape or recourse — and for which we are all responsible, even the most revolutionary among us — is this respect for what has already been written, formulated, or painted, what has been given form, as if all expression were not finally exhausted and had not reached the point where things must fall apart if they are to begin again.


“The masterpieces of the past are good for the past: they are not good for us.  We have a right to say what has been said and even what has not been said in a way which pertains to us, which is immediate and direct, which corresponds to present modes of feeling, and which everyone will understand.”

David Keenan wrote about “hypnagogic pop” in The Wire magazine (“Hypnagogic Pop,” August 2009, Issue 306).  He coined the term to describe “How James Ferraro, Spencer Clark, Pocahaunted, Emeralds, et al are floating beyond Noise to a dreampop hallucination of the 1980s.” “Hypnagogic” means “Of or relating to the state immediately before falling asleep.” (Oxford Dictionaries).  The way Ariel Pink adopts (and modifies) this approach, it becomes a reflection of the very same sentiment Artaud expressed about the theater seven decades prior.  What has been said and formulated before falls apart, and is put back together in a new way, breaking out of a trance-like impression of the former, accepted meaning.  The flat, creaking falsetto vocals, tape hiss and sudden shifts in tone, and fragmentary lyrics on Scared Famous are like the violent jolts that promote a physical understanding of the music just as Artaud suggested in theater.

What separates the music of Ariel Pink from, say, hip-hop, is that Pink largely retains the overall structure of the sources he plunders.  Hip-hop uses repeated samples, which disassociates the new music from its source.  New rhythms are created.  Raps also use less vocal dynamics than the singing common on the source material.  In contrast, Pink creates songs with verses, choruses and all the other formal elements of the original rock/pop music.  What differs are the jumps between styles and breakdowns within a song, and his vocals, which are irreverent, off-kilter, off-key (flat or sharp), sarcastic, and often in a different style juxtaposed against the musical accompaniment.  So “Talking All of the the Time” has fuzzy heavy metal guitar riffs broken up by squeaky novelty teen pop vocals, shattered by gothic growls.  Also, the degraded, lo-fi haze over everything in Pink’s music has a distancing effect.  It emphasizes remove from the original source, the way late-generation dubbed cassette tapes sound.  Yet it does so inscribed on overt references to the past.  Another way of looking at his music is that it is like being locked in a room in which you have to listen to 1980s FM radio blasted loudly from an adjacent room, with the music sounding indistinct and muddy through a wall, and continuing to the point that it all seems to blend together into a morass of old, jumbled memories.  At that point, someone keeps opening the door to the room to interject statements (in affected, goofy voices) that seem to both contradict and complement the music in a way that makes it seem more concrete and pointed than you previously imagined it could, or ever wanted it to after sitting through it so long.

This is unsentimental, militant music because it does not respect the status of the sorts of cultural artifacts it appropriates.  Pink’s songs pay the sources no deference.  They are just some bits of raw material, the stuff of the past.  History, like these musical fragments, gains meaning only looking back.  Pink has a free hand to fashion whatever meaning in it he chooses.  This is not unlike demolishing an ancient Roman shrine — or if you prefer, a Nazi concentration camp — to use the blocks and rubble to build something entirely different.  And if the only thing built is a flophouse — an apt comparison for some, given the coarse, lo-fi, uncouth sensibility of Pink’s music — so what?  The early Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti albums may seem like bored SoCal adolescent indulgence, but they are also militant in their appropriations.  They must be seen as militant.  Hegel said, “It is an insight of speculative philosophy that Freedom is the sole truth of Spirit.”  (Reason in History).  The caustic, impudent, profane, and at times self-indulgent mess that Ariel Pink has recorded here requires a substantial sort of freedom, or else it would not be tolerated.

What makes Ariel Pink one of the great pop/rock musicians of his time is the scope of his faculty with the remnants of bland pop music of the past.  Some references are easy ones, but they only scratch the surface of what Pink is up to on Scared Famous.  Every song dabbles in slightly different genres, from R&B (“Howling at the Moon”), to psychedelic surf rock/pop (“Jesus Christ Came to Me in a Dream”) to TV commercial jingles (“Beefbud”), Italian pop exotica meeting jangle pop (“Gopacapulco”).  He catalogs a vast array of styles from the 1960s onward.  Some are featured only for a single guitar riff.  Others weave throughout an entire song.  Pink doesn’t just show off his familiarity with so much music, though his work does prove the time and energy he’s put towards such a self-styled education.  The specificity of what he draws upon, both in its time referents, and in the demographics of the audiences that it was directed to and who once fostered its success, make it more than that.  There is a definite act of defiant creativity in the way this slacker takes thrift store cast offs — the music people have wanted to forget — and transposes it to summon meaning that matters to the present.  He is definitely not trying to recreate some closed universe of nostalgic authenticity.  He’s sifting through the wreckage of the past, and taking bits of it down another path.  No doubt, along the way he exudes the sort of attitude that comes naturally from working in record stores and collecting albums (“The List (My Favorite Song)”).

I must admit to a soft spot for autodidacts.  Ariel Pink fits that description.  He’s doing what he does, on his own.  There isn’t deference to norms.  More importantly, he puts forward his own vision, turning the standard hierarchy of taste-making on its head.  If he can turn around perceptions of music like he has here, it seem like anyone can reformulate anything.

Taking, presumably, the best of what was on the original double-album set, this is about as compelling as Pink got with his early work.  No doubt, even this trimmed version of the original Scared Famous/FF>> album set could stand to be trimmed back a little further (dropping “Girl in a Tree,” “The Kitchen Club”).  It still benefits from a sequencing that puts most of the slower, folkier elements in the second half and most of the more driving R&B and metal elements in the first half.  Assuming it is fair to accept the hindsight editing of this re-release, Scared Famous probably edges out Worn Copy as the best of Pink’s early home recordings.

Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti – Before Today

Before Today

Ariel Pink’s Haunted GraffitiBefore Today 4AD CAD3X15CD (2010)

A growing and widespread trend amongst music of the early 21st Century is a tendency to look back at earlier eras, and to the innocence of youth.  At its most grating and shallow, this is represented by many forms of indie “twee” pop.  At its most incisive and nuanced, representatives of the freak folk movement stand out, like early Devendra Banhart and, more significantly, Joanna Newsom.  New strains of “hypnagogic pop” also fit the bill.  Ariel Pink fits in that continuum too.  His music, lo-fi pop he credits to the R. Stevie Moore school, is like a filtered and re-cast version of pop music of the 1960s, 70s and 80s.  For Pink, the “innocence of youth” is about remaining a sort of juvenile delinquent of the highest order, and playing and subverting music that resembles what was popular when he was a child.  Slavoj Žižek, discussing the film The Village, mentions how the story portrays a “desire to recreate a closed universe of authenticity in which innocence is protected from the coercive force of modernity . . . .”  That also could describe the most devolved and conservative visions in music emphasized incessantly by indie twee, while Pink’s motivation is more of an attempt to pour acid on innocent history and corrode it sufficiently to create his own mutant version.  The boldest and most impressive aspect of what Pink does is that his musical sources tend to be the most passé kinds of AM radio fare that would normally provoke a sneer from most listeners, or at least any that consider themselves “hip”.  The earliest Haunted Graffiti albums were solo affairs, recorded on primitive equipment in Pink’s home, complete with human beatbox “percussion”.  Now Pink has a band behind him.  They are the right band.  Without backing away from the warm and fuzzy sound of a 4th generation tape dub, his group adds precision to the melodies that is a major asset.  What this music represents though is a reboot of pop of the preceding decades.  It is as if to say, “it failed before, but this time it might work!”  Music like this says a lot about society, and how on some level there is recognition that we have to go back and undo the mistakes of history while salvaging its successes.