I get the feeling I should have read this one first. Academic Ken McLeod (so noted to distinguish him from Author Ken MacLeod, unless the latter has taken to Banks-style additional letter obfuscation to keep separate his literary and scholarly careers) provides a basically chronological overview of “space, alien and technofuturistic themes” — science fictionality, basically — in popular music between the start of the space age and the turn of the century. As such, it’s not hugely revelatory, but it ranges widely and lays out a framework within which some of the other articles I’ve already discussed can be understood. For example:
Music is heavily involved in both the creation and literal colonisation of space — music creates an embodied but imaginary space that mediates our internal space (feelings, desires, dreams) with external space (the physical, the experienced) […] Thus music, in general, connects listeners to fantasy, pleasure, and an ever-elusive future.
While I might take issue with that “literal”, this is clearly the sort of understanding of music that underlies approaching it as a site for posthumanism. McLeod talks usefully about what you might call sonic nation-states, affinity groups supported by a musical genre, which is relevant to black music in America; about a political understanding of raves as seeking an “idealised raceless, classless and genderless plurality” on the dance floor; and about sampling as “aural time travel”. He also draws a distinction between the use of technology in hip-hop and its use in prog-rock, with the latter allegedly emphasizing “the desire to master, to dominate and to, in effect, colonise new and uncharted realms of technology and musical experimentation”. Perhaps that one is stretching a point.
McLeod also makes the point that so frustrated me in my reading of “Mozart in Mirrorshades“, that technology can be considered as natural:
For example, the use of technology, alien and futuristic imagery in various forms of African-American music seems, on first appearance, antithetical to the commonly held view of ‘authentic’ black music as natural, funky, or soulful. However, such images can also be interpreted as merely the result of human interaction with their environment.
Some of what Weheliye says also approaches this conclusion, but it’s never stated quite so clearly. At the same time, Lysloff offers a useful corrective to some of McLeod’s assumptions, when the latter writes that “the use of digital sounds and samples creates a synthesised global melange in which race, class, gender and ethnicity melt away”.
In general there’s less to argue here simply because there’s less argument. I did wonder at the assertion that —
As rock became a global phenomenon of the information cyberspace-age, space and alien themes were more prevalent than ever in the 1990s and into the new millennium — particularly in the realms of alternative rock and electronica/techno dance music.
— since McLeod goes from discussing Davie Bowie, George Clinton and Pink Floyd to offering as examples “Shonen Knife, Spacehog, Gwar, Star Kicker and I Mother Earth”, who aren’t really on the same level of influence. I wondered whether this narrative of increasing prevalence (increasing science-fictionality) was really accurate, when it comes to music. I suppose the evidence in favour is that we have Muse now.
4 thoughts on “Reading List: Space Oddities: Aliens, Futurism and Meaning in Popular Music”
Just to make confusion worse confounded, an article by me in the latest issue of the academic SF journal Extrapolation has my name spelled as McLeod.
I wondered whether this narrative of increasing prevalence (increasing science-fictionality) was really accurate, when it comes to music.
I’m not sure it’s accurate for current music, either — at least not for really big-name acts. I can’t think of all that many who regularly write songs on science-fictional themes: Muse, The Flaming Lips, Klaxons… and I’m not sure all of those are strictly ‘big name’. One could make a case for Gorillaz as being sf in concept, but maybe less so in musical content.
Perhaps there’s another way of looking at science-fictionality in music, and that’s music which is ‘estranging’ in some way. I can see that in big-name artists like Radiohead and Björk; but, even then, I’m not sure it’s a prevailing characteristic of contemporary music.
A more general point that struck me about the concept of sf-nal music is that, whilst I might read a book or watch a film because it had a science-fictional theme, I probably wouldn’t listen to a song or album solely for that reason. It makes me wonder how much of a similarity there is between the forms when considered as science fiction.
A more general point that struck me about the concept of sf-nal music is that, whilst I might read a book or watch a film because it had a science-fictional theme, I probably wouldn’t listen to a song or album solely for that reason.
Yes. I’m not sure to what extent that’s because science-fictionality seems to me to inflect music and fiction in different ways, and to what extent it’s because it inflects music and fiction in similar ways, but I’m seeking different experiences from each form.