May 12th, 2009

Super Freaks and the Collective Talent

I love the moment at 0:21 in this credit card commercial:

It’s obvious why, no?

MC Hammer’s “U Can’t Touch This” — a “work” which, in addition to the song itself, includes as a part of its whole a now iconic video, known as much for its choreography as parachute pants — has become a part of the whole that is Rick James’s “Super Freak.”

Why has that happened? Because we say so, hear so, see so, know so.

Or as T.S. Eliot once put it:

No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists. You cannot value him alone; you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead. I mean this as a principle of æsthetic, not merely historical, criticism. The necessity that he shall conform, that he shall cohere, is not one-sided; what happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art which preceded it. The existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art among them. The existing order is complete before the new work arrives; for order to persist after the supervention of novelty, the whole existing order must be, if ever so slightly, altered; and so the relations, proportions, values of each work of art toward the whole are readjusted; and this is conformity between the old and the new.

Which is not unlike what Nicolas Bourriard recently proposed (via /Jace):

These artists who insert their own work into that of others contribute to the eradication of the traditional distinction between production and consumption, creation and copy, readymade and original work. The material they manipulate is no longer primary. It is no longer a matter of elaborating a form on the basis of a raw material but working with objects that are already in circulation on the cultural market, which is to say, objects already informed by other objects. Notions of originality (being at the origin of) and even of creation (making something from nothing) are slowly blurred in this new cultural landscape marked by the twin figures of the DJ and the programmer, both of whom have the task of selecting cultural objects and inserting them into new contexts.

But what I like about Eliot saying this in 1922, more than Bourriard in 2009, is that this essential cultural process long predates mechanical and digital reproduction. It’s the stuff of poets and philosophers, as well as DJs and hackers, walkman-wearing dancers and credit card commercials. It’s just how culture works. Always has, always will. Can’t stop, won’t.

So thanks for the songs & dances, guys; now they’re ours.


  • 1. Birdseed  |  May 13th, 2009 at 3:10 am

    I think we might be looking at an era where theory is finally catching up to what’s been obvious to us for a long time. The idea that works are never finished, even in relation to other artists, is surely a central part of the Riddim method?

    Another big art event this spring, besides Bourriaud’s Tate Triennal and its accompanying book, is Édouard Glissant’s and Patrick Chamoiseau’s Kréyol Factory in Paris. They too discuss culture as continuously changing, and both use the archipleago as their model for how creativity works. Theory has been stuck for ages with literature as its central inspiration, but now its in a position where the closest analogy is popular music, and Caribbean popular music in particular!

    We’re the Avant-Garde!

  • 2. wayneandwax  |  May 13th, 2009 at 8:10 am

    Another awesome thing about Kreyol Factory is the poster —

    As for theory catching up, maybe that’s true for continental theory. Caribbean theorists like Glissant and Stuart Hall have long been talking about the Caribbean as prefiguring/embodying the modern.

  • 3. wayneandwax  |  May 13th, 2009 at 9:06 am

    As if to add credence, this link landed in my inbox overnight —

  • 4. Magne  |  May 15th, 2009 at 8:50 pm

    Similarly, the social anthropologist Daniel Miller chose Trinidad as a location to study modernity and material culture

  • 5. John Schaefer  |  May 18th, 2009 at 7:10 am

    I like what you’re saying, but 1922 came long after electronically recorded music and film had already made an impression on collective consciousness–1870s for music, 1890s for moving pictures. The work of art has been in the age of mechanical reproduction since the 15th century for Europeans. I like to think that I can grab hold of essential culture, but usually I end up getting reminded that it’s always already mediated.

  • 6. w&w  |  May 18th, 2009 at 7:43 am

    word. but i wasn’t by any stretch dating this to 1922 — that’s the tip of the iceberg from which eliot looks back (and forward). sure, there’s something requiring repertory / literature / authorship in all of this — not sure whether it holds for oral/aural tradition, but i suspect it does — that perhaps implies some degree of mediation (and at any rate, we could always argue that culture is variously mediated, by our senses and egos as well as what we more generally think of as “media”). for me, this goes well beyond the modern, though i’m sympathetic to your antiessentialist “impulse.”

  • 7. John Schaefer  |  May 20th, 2009 at 1:00 pm

    Excellent! I’m also reminded of the paradox of genre: When we choose to produce something in a new genre, something we heard this morning for the first time, or when we change the parameters of an existing genre–put a new wiggle in an old rhythm, maybe–either way, it’s a moment of freedom that focuses attention on the creative act. But at the same time, it’s also a moment of limitation. Even if it’s only a reference to the limits of an absent genre, that nod enacts the imposition of social convention and voluntary deference to an arbitrary formal style.

  • 8. » C&hellip  |  June 22nd, 2009 at 2:12 pm

    […] new music by saddling it with the weight of tradition (e.g., bassline as hardcore?), much as that can seem inevitable. Kinda like missing the trees for the forest, […]

  • 9. wayneandwax  |  December 11th, 2009 at 11:05 am

    Richie Hawtin’s comments here, which I just stumbled on recently, also seem pretty germane to this discussion —

    “Every track these days should be considered a work in progress,” says Hawtin. “Everything is version 1.0, and anybody should be allowed to take your ideas and add their own ideas to it. We need to be more open about music, ideas and ownership.”

  • 10. » W&hellip  |  March 10th, 2010 at 11:41 am

    […] take, “Super Freak” & “U Can’t Touch This” (which I discussed a ways back) — whose text has merged with whose? Which is now primary and which is para? It’s not […]


I'm a techno-musicologist, internet annotator, imagined community organizer.

I left my <3 in the digital global, but I reside in Cambridge, MA, where I'm from.

I represent like that.

wayne at wayneandwax dot com

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