Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Uncanny Valley 6: Unreal and Unreal-er, or, Why a "Fake" Fake Isn't Uncanny

I made a brief mention in my last uncanny valley post about the difference between "real" music, by which I mean music played on actual (i.e. "real," material or physical) musical instruments by musicians (i.e. human beings with some skill on those instruments, availing themselves of said instruments without superadded technological assistance) on the one hand and, on the other hand, synthetically computer-generated and auto-tuned "music" (scarequotes emphasized). It was mostly a throwaway remark at the time, but then one of my friends posted the picture to the left (of the living, breathing Form of the Fake, Taylor Swift, and her wax-double) on my Facebook page asking: "Which one is real?" I responded, of course, "NEITHER is real." And here's why:

Like the godforsaken "music" with which she tortures us all ad nauseum, Taylor Swift is an entirely manufactured product. She is, at best, a "copy of a copy" or a simulacrum, a phenomenon that has been elaborated at length by theorists like Frederic Jameson and Jean Baudrillard. Jameson used the painting technique known as photorealism (or hyperrealism) as the archetype of simulacra, in which artists attempt to perfectly replicate a photograph in painting, an example which I think is helpful in understanding Taylor Swift's especially nauseating kind of τέχνη. (Techne is usually translated as "skill" or "craftmanship," though here I want to emphasize another corresponding element of techne, namely, it's definition as "that which has its origin in another.") Photorealist painters do not artistically represent "the real," but rather they artistically re-present artistic representations of the real. That is, they "copy" a copy, and in so doing produce an image of an image that (Jameson et al speculate) no longer possesses-- or possesses at an exponentionally inferior value-- the substance or qualities of the original being replicated or represented. (Against my inherent deconstructionist impulses, I'll leave aside for the moment the many problems with unreflectively privileging "the real" over "the image.") Taylor Swift, in my view, is like a musical version of a photorealist-- she copies the copy of "the pop icon," the copy of "the musician," the copy of the "pretty girl," even the copy of the sound and story of "the song." Consequently, the products of her technique always come across as thoroughly, irredeemably false.

Swift's products are so false, in fact, that they even fail to achieve the kind of repulsion/attraction affective response that we experience in the uncanny. I don't know that I'm ready to go on the record with this claim or not-- though, I am posting it here, which is a kind of record, so whatevs-- but I think that what makes pop music "popular" involves a little bit of the uncanny. As I've said on this blog before, pop music is first and foremost defined by the "hook", that familiar/unfamiliar sonic phenomenon that simultaneously draws us to a song (because it sounds familair) and yet at the same time marks it as something novel ("new" or unfamiliar). The problem with Taylor Swift's music, and her persona, is that it is too familiar. It's not a slightly-intriguing variation on an original, it's merely a copy of a copy-- only a MORE inferior iteration of an already inferior representation. That is to say, it aims at copying successful iterations of "the pop (or country) song," which are themselves re-presentations of the substance and qualities of some "original" human emotion or experience, without aiming to represent the original itself. In my mind, anyway, these sorts of hyperreal simulations subvert the fundamentally provocative psychic operations of the uncanny double, which always retains enough of a reference to the substance and qualities of the original to warrant an (affective, emotional, responsive) association of the reproduction with the original it aims to represent.

An aside: Although I am a diehard fan of country music, I am NOT a fan of the early-to-mid-90's variant that came to be known as "new country" or "pop country" or "crossover country," of which Taylor Swift's so-called music is a representative. What happened in the corporatization of Nashville (aka NashVegas) during that period was a mass production and proliferation of the "form" of country music without any of its accompanying "substance." So, "new country" involves lots and lots of over-produced harmonies and pedal-steel guitars and fiddle solos, lots and lots of phone-it-in sad stories, lots and lots of orchestral key-changes intended to swell the sum of affective response, without any of the "real" talent or grit that made "real" country music really great. No poor people, no real heartbreaks, no rode-hard-and-hung-up-wet characters, no genuinely impressive musical or vocal talent... just an always-inferior, always-disappointing, always-too-familiar copying of the same. Hence, the reactive musical phenomenon known as alt-country-- which is not only an "alternative" to old-style country, but also an alternative to its nauseatingly false falsifying-- gained a following, in part, because it attempted to recapture something that new/pop/crossover country seemed to have carelessly disregarded: authenticity.

And it's not only the sub-standard "music" that Taylor Swift produces that I object to, but also the fact she is packaged in/as a sub-standard, photorealist, bad copy of the sort of "person" that might really produce it. To the extent that I can extend any sympathy whatesoever to that fake-itude, I feel sorry for Taylor Swift for allowing herself to be trapped in the trappings of a production that is not, and will never be, her own. (Now THAT'S a sad story about which Swift should write a real song.) I'll be the first to admit that there are a lot of problems with overly-romantic, overly-nostalgic celebrations of some reductive sense of "authenticity," but I suppose that I would say in my own defense here that if there IS an appropriate context to talk about "authenticity" anywhere outside of existentialism, it's country music.

PSA aside, my point here is that one shouldn't take the pretensions of pop-culture like Taylor Swift-- unlike the truly interesting, doubling pretensions of pop-culture that we see in much of reality television-- as examples of the ultimately (morally, politically, technologically and pschycologically) instructive nature of the uncanny. The fake-out of the uncanny is instructive only insofar as it "really" fakes us out, that is, only insofar as it touches close enough upon the familiar to make one worry about the confusion of the familiar and the unfamiliar. Taylor Swift is not "strange" in that interesting, unheimliche way. She's just fake.

Maybe as fake as the wax-reproduction of her persona... which might actually be something interesting to talk about.


Brunson said...

A counterpoint.

Chet said...

You may want to check this out: