He may not rock, but he sure do ron ron

November 12, 2004

Scratching, mixing, cutting and splicing - pop musichas taken to deconstruction like a fish to water.

Three philosophers kick off a five-page look at Derrida's legacy with thoughts on how he transformed the customs and practices of a discipline.

In 1987 a new record company raised its head above the parapet.

Deconstruction, a dance label with a certain attitude, combined the cool of club culture with the edginess of an independent label. Quite why Deconstruction's founders chose that particular guise is lost in the sweaty smog of a thousand pulsating dance floors, but there's little doubt the label, which would eventually become home to a newly credible Kylie Minogue, had tuned into the Zeitgeist by selecting that rather serious, slightly dangerous and somewhat subversive name.

The innovative, ground-breaking end of popular music enjoys these mysterious little conceits. Just as pop art, in the Sixties, crossed the cultural divide to raid the shelves of the supermarkets and embrace the icons of mass culture - Brillo Pads, Coke bottles and Campbell's soup cans - so cutting-edge pop music has reversed the flow, revelling in its smart references to the radical and the revolutionary, the artistic and philosophical, the avant-garde and, yes, occasionally, the academic.

Cabaret Voltaire revived interest in Dada, the Sex Pistols found themselves linked to Situationism, and the Libertines have been regarded as reincarnations of the original, doomed Romantics.

So for a hip dance label to namecheck Derrida's world-view was not so surprising, even if it was more about streetwise pose than theoretical prose. But did deconstruction have anything to say to popular music? Could we take pop, rock or reggae and deconstruct them in the manner Derrida proposed for books, billboards or buildings?

The changes happening in popular music in the 20 years since Derrida began to be a force in France were significant indeed. Once punk and the new wave had fizzled out at the end of the 1970s, pop in the Eighties and Nineties produced the kind of hybrid brands that were full of the multiple textual meanings that Derrida had so keenly warned us of. Nothing was quite as it seemed.

Fragments, samples and loops, pilfered backbeats, swiped drum patterns, nicked vocal hooks, repossessed guitar riffs and stolen bass lines were beginning to embroider and embellish, even embody, dozens upon dozens of tracks. The new sub-genres were begging and borrowing, mashing and messing, splicing and lacing, stripping down and ripping off, recycling and reshaping, blagging and blending rhythms from a vast range of musical sources.

At first, the DJs and remixers employed the scratching techniques derived from double record decks, which permitted the intermingling of two tracks.

They drew on hip-hop and disco influences, including Hi-NRG dance tunes, Latin and Euro-pop rhythms, electro and synthesised sounds. But it wasn't long before the scene cast its net wider, grafting on vocal and instrumental refrains from earlier songs. Never had those thought systems that suggested the multivalent qualities of contemporary culture, and the need for new theories to unwrap them, seemed so applicable.

I suppose artists Phil Spector, the Beatles and Brian Wilson or Lee Perry, whose dub and talkover methods heavily influenced the new dance music, might also have presented appropriate material for such deconstructive treatments, but they didn't so evidently rifle through the drawers of the music's past and then so blatantly reuse it.

In the 21st century, pop's appetite for musical mix and match remains unsatiated. The rise of bootleg has hit new heights of incestuous ingenuity, with DJs and producers, engineers and mixers utilising state-of-the-art studio desk techniques to sync two or more tracks, or even whole albums, into one seamless melange.

The new, and strictly unofficial, trend has seen some fascinating double-headers, for example, Christina Aguilera colliding with the Strokes on the track A Stroke of Genius . And earlier this year, US artist DJ Dangermouse took the Beatles' 1968 White Album (strictly titled The Beatles ) and Jay-Z's 2003 Black Album and wittily reconfigured them as The Grey Album , a highly acclaimed splicing of pop psychedelia and rap beats that has been largely suppressed by EMI's legal team.

But while Derrida's limited reflection on music has not discouraged some musicologists from drawing on his suggestions - Marcel Cobussen at Rotterdam's Erasmus University has contemplated Bach, John Cage, John Zorn and Burt Bacharach within this praxis, for example - popular musicology has found less inclination, so far, to immerse itself in sliding signifiers and unsettling symbols. One reason may be that its tenure in the academy is not much older than club culture itself or, indeed, the Deconstruction label.

The potential for Derridean decoding in popular music therefore seems greater than the work done so far. A revamped version of Spector's The Derrida Ron Ron , in all its multitracked glory, isn't yet a reality but no doubt Jacques' playful obsession with the intertextual and multitextual would surely have left him smiling at such an intriguing prospect.

Simon Warner is a senior teaching fellow in popular music at the University of Leeds.

Please login or register to read this article

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments