Showing posts with label Guy Debord. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Guy Debord. Show all posts

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Buffalo Springfield Again

A few days ago, in my post titled “Year One: Reflections,” I mentioned that my interpretations of pop songs such as “Judy In Disguise (With Glasses),” “Everyone’s Gone to the Moon,” and “Crimson and Clover” have consistently received hits through web searches over the past few months. I neglected to mention in that list my discussion (from last June) of Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth”—the entry is available here—which has also received a good number of hits over the past few months as well. Looking back on that post after the distance of a few months, however, left me dissatisfied with my discussion, not because I think I was especially “wrong” about the song, but because the discussion stopped short, leaving unstated the larger point I was trying to make.

While I think my essential point is correct—that the song, upon close inspection, really doesn’t express a coherent position about much of anything—in retrospect I think I was foolish, for one thing, to expect a pop song to express a coherent position about politics, much less complex social problems: pop songs are basically reactionary in nature. But more importantly, the larger, theoretical, point was left unstated. What I was trying to say is that the song is a sign without a referent: it means, but it doesn’t refer. The song doesn’t depict any “real” or actual event, despite being putatively inspired by the so-called “Sunset Strip Riot” in November 1966. (“Riot” was the word used by the media to represent the event, presumably instigated by discontented youth; whether it actually was an event of such proportion I have no idea.) Bertrand Russell illustrated the distinction between meaning and reference in his famous example, “The King of France is bald.” The sentence means, but it doesn’t refer—because there is no King of France.

Records, like movies, are signs without referents. As Robert Ray explains:

...behind Casablanca or “Fight the Power” lies no single, “real” event that has been transcribed and reproduced…. In 1967, situationist leader Guy Debord warned that in “societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation.” (How A Film Theory Got Lost, 69)

Debord’s last sentence can be amended to say, “What was once directly lived has moved away into a construction”—whether that is a record titled “For What It’s Worth” or a movie called Riot on Sunset Strip (1967). Simon Reynolds observed, “The power of pop lies not in its meaning but its noise, not in its import but its force” (Blissed Out: The Raptures of Rock, 10)—as this performance of “For What It’s Worth” from American television in 1967 should remind us. The television appearance occurred in 1967, the same year as Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle was initially published. Ironically, Neil Young explicitly acknowledged the replacement of the live by the recording during the TV appearance.