Saturday, May 29, 2010

Secret Influences 5: PWEI

When I read at Margaret Christakos's Influency series last Fall, one of the students in her class remarked that reading poems from American Standard/ Canada Dry felt modular. I thought this was a great observation as I often compose small poems as discrete units, which I then later fit into larger structures as I realize how they might interact with each other. In particular, she noted that reading the "American Standard" sequence reminded her of watching a stack of televisions piled atop each other in a grid, all turned to different stations. At the time I wasn't prepared to "out" my "secret influences," but that was the effect I was trying to achieve, inspired in part by this:

This video is, of course, riffing on the character of Ozymandias from Alan Moore's Watchmen who views multiple televisions at the same time, but I'm betting that Pop Will Eat Itself were also aware when making this video that Moore himself was gesturing to an earlier cinematic image--that of David Bowie in Nicolas Roeg's The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976):

Anyone know if this is really the genesis of this image, or are there earlier incarnations? Might be worth exploring in a McLuhanesque essay someday. And speaking of critical analysis, while much of the imagery in the "Wise Up! Sucker" video is dated, I still appreciate the latent (?) psychoanalytic elements going on in the video, with the megaphone functioning as the superego, attempting to awaken the lead singer from his television-induced narcissistic anesthesia: wise up!

I listened to a lot of Pop Will Eat Itself (PWEI) in the early nineties, particularly This is the Day... This is the Hour... This is This! (1989), the album from which "Wise Up! Sucker" is taken. PWEI were one of the first bands to mix electronica, hip-hop, politics, and pop culture in one smart, infectious, and danceable groove, and This is the Day was their masterstroke, one of the best concept albums of the late 1980s, which perfectly captures the zeitgeist of fear induced by Reaganite/ Thatcherite neoliberalism, nuclear proliferation, and the rise of global media empires, with citizens being pacified by blockbuster films, computer games, and new recreational drugs.

Besides being a product of that period, what influenced me most about PWEI, and what I still love about them today is their pure dialogicism--lyrically, multiple voices and discourses clash and collide creating puns and connections beyond the surface and, musically, the samples and cinematic voice-overs spin intertextual references at a non-semantic level. I see similar effects in an album like Paul's Boutique, which is also another influence on my wordplay and poetics, but PWEI was certainly more underground and subversive than the Beastie Boys during this period.

A track like "Can U Dig It?" is probably a better example than "Wise Up! Sucker," taking its title and dominant sample from the 1979 cult film about street gangs, The Warriors, and moving to a full-on investigation of the influence of American imagery on global culture. But PWEI add their own Anglophilia to the mix, showing how British comic artists and musicians are just as influential and exciting as their American counterparts. A few of the kung-fu and action-film references don't appeal to me, but I love the conjunction of Schwarzenegger, Mark E. Smith, and Watchmen in the triplet "Terminator!/ Hit the North!/ Alan Moore knows the score":

I'll sign off with the third single from This is the Day, "Def. Con. One" which comes the closest to what I'm attempting in "American Standard," suggesting that connections (or "the con") between corporatism, junk food, nuclear war, and fascism are not far-fetched:

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