Academic journal article DQR Studies in Literature

Robinson in Headphones: The Desert Island as Pop Fetish

Academic journal article DQR Studies in Literature

Robinson in Headphones: The Desert Island as Pop Fetish

Article excerpt

Cultural Studies sometimes feels like a parlour game entitled "What would Adorno say?", in which you play the faithful bloodhound by offering up crapulous examples of cultural roadkill to his disapproving analysis (he would have something to say about parlour games for a start). In this guise, I present what might be the lowest of the low, the third manifestation of the Alvin and the Chipmunks franchise, Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked (2011), an example of kitsch at its most refined.1 In it, the rodent boy band find themselves marooned on a desert island, a perfect pop marriage of setting and protagonist, and one that is the source of my exploration here. Primarily, the aura of the desert island in cultural representations is one of desirability because there is nothing on it, and that therefore a person (or even an anthropomorphized tree-rat) might discover the true meaning of life by going back-to-basics there. Furthermore, popular music (at least if you follow Adorno's stringencies) is the art form with absolutely nothing in it, and the content of the pop sung by the Chipmunks is remarkable for how it entirely dehumanizes the human voice, synthesizing human voices into machine-music even as the pathetic fallacy does its doggedly routine work. A void space is soundtracked with an inhuman din.

Me, myself and I: pop's ideal listener

The chipmunks are not the only exemplars of this phenomenon, however; this essay wagers that nothing better demonstrates the thorough marooning of the consumerist self than the inexorable privatization of music, with the hegemony of once-Walkmanistic and now iPod solipsism. This tendency has been evident since hit parades started to be calculated on the sales of records rather than sheet music, but it has become particularly definitive of the experience of music in the twenty-first century, where the concept of "My Music" has come to override the idea of music as belonging to those who perform it, a cultural shift already identified in the 1970s by Jacques Attali's Noise: "The love of music, a desire increasingly trapped in the consumption of music for listening, cannot find in performance what the phonograph record provides: the possibility of saving, of stockpiling at home, and destroying at pleasure."2 This is also a product of a post-structuralist moment when the listener is given as much agency as the performer, confirmed in the twenty-first-century trend where bands now perform live with a guarantee that they will play a classic album in proper order on stage, simulating their own recording, and selling tickets on the basis that all surprise will be eliminated. Such a promotion has a double function: it invests in the very notion of the classic, but it also asserts that the recorded experience has a priority over the live, that the discs which the fan stacks in his or her bedroom (or the files on his or her hard drive) are where value really lies, where in fact everything happens. It also suggests that, for all our insistence on live authenticity, we would rather our musicians mimed (or sang like chipmunks), so odious is the thought of deviation from what we know.3

This obsession with music as personal possession is further reflected in the music itself, and notably in pop's fetishization of becoming a castaway. In this context, I want to look at the phenomenon of both the BBC Radio programme Desert Island Discs (as a format that actively reports on the islanding of music by a colonizing self)4 and at pop music that imagines an island life, in order to see how the trope of the desert island turns quickly from an innocent imagining of asocial liberation into a much more radically reactionary phenomenon, ultimately an expression of violence that is at once anti-social and ecstatic.

If we adopt Adorno's analysis that the real terror of popular music is in its refusal of dialectic, the symbiosis of it with the desert island (where nothing happens either) becomes very evident. …

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