Joshua Clover and Chris Nealon / Letter Two on Value and Poetry

Chris Nealon

Dear Joshua,

So here’s the thing about Ke$ha. Last year, when anticapitalists in the Bay Area were working out a new politics of resistance to the budget crisis in California’s education system, and I was watching it unfold from my perch in Washington, DC, I felt a painful combination of exhilaration and misery. I felt exhilaration at what it suddenly seemed you were all capable of – the new language being generated, and how it spored out across the country, and to other countries, reappearing on websites and in demonstrations – and also a kind of loneliness or misery that I couldn’t be there to participate. I couldn’t flesh out the ache of an unrealizable solidarity I was feeling like a phantom limb. And during those months, I kept wondering, why was it the Ke$ha songs that most made me wish I were there, and imagine what it would be like if I could be? Why did I keep imagining, not just occupying buildings with you all, but dancing with you in them?

So yeah that’s embarrassing. But it was vivid. Like: unable to occupy anything myself, I let the songs occupy me. But why songs about partying?

You’ve had lovely things to say about all that, about how the teen-pop of the late-90s boom has morphed into a kind of late-style decadence that pretends to dot-com innocence but also deliberately darkens it, takes melodic and lyrical figures for innocence and turns them into figures for excess expenditure. So you’ve had me thinking about that for a while, about how the sweet old carpe diem of “Baby I feel like we’re running out of time” mutates, after the bust, into “dirt and glitter / cover the floor / we’re pretty and sick / we’re young and we’re bored” — how the sense of youth’s erotic opportunities being fleeting mutates into a felt lateness in the world. Like “Tearing Up My Heart” was NSync’s “To His Coy Mistress,” and “Blow” is Ke$ha’s Waste Land.

Except. It’s also like there’s two poles of power in late-style teen-pop: the police and the DJ, and what they share is that they both make you put your hands up. Buried in the much-noted decadence of the songs, that is – the puke-and-glitter-spatter of them – buried in their decadence is the dream of taking over the club, of occupying it. Somehow these late-style teen-pop girls keep linking partying and getting in trouble with the cops — and in the latest Katy Perry single, tellingly, maxing out her credit card while she’s at it.

There’s something very consistent in these songs – not just in the lyrics, but in something musical the lyrics strain to summarize – about what relentless expenditure feels like now, something about how giving it all up to drunkenness and stupidity is a hair’s-breadth away from what it would feel like to tap into collective power in the era of universal indebtedness. But it goes nowhere: these aren’t protest songs, they’re teen pop. But it doesn’t go nowhere: it points straight to the problem of youth’s relation to the perpetual lateness of capital, to its making-waste or maxing-out of everything it touches.

Last month in The Capilano Review you and I got to talk about how, in George Stanley’s poems, old age becomes a powerful figure for one lived relation to capital: for Stanley, we came to feel, being old is like being modern, because being modern and being old in Stanley’s poems are both experiences of precariousness, of potentially being cast aside at any moment. I wonder if the power of a certain late-style teen-pop is how it imagines that being young is like being leveraged, and that dancing like you’re dumb, your body going numb, is like defaulting on a debt. Like if value, under capital, is never fully realized in anyone’s labor — like you could never work enough to pay off your debts — then it’s also true that solidarity is unrealizable in lyric expenditure alone. Gauntlet: picked up, but only partly.



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