By Drew Burns
You didn’t know that you would have a profound, culturally galvanizing moment one second before you heard Billy Joel sing the words “children of thalidomide,” but by now I hope that you realized that this moment marked a fractal shattering of the collective apperception of time and space.
The video to We Didn’t Start the Fire, the Fifties archetypal family morphing from Lucy and Desi to the white bread milquetoast Ozzie & Harriet that would send their sons off to fight the War of VC Aggression. The claim, self-evident: a plea for absolutions of the sins committed in the name of the Cold War (and racism, and McCarthyism, and and and). The plaintiff’s tone: a jumpy pop piano tune. The audacity: the absolute unmitigated audacity.
I don’t want you to think that I am saying the song isn’t an absolute gem, it is, a lyrical piece of musical Fordite. I am, however, screaming this guy sits in front of a photo of a lynched man like it’s a prop to prove exactly what he and the generation for whom he has claimed oracular station most certainly did not perpetrated. They univocally proclaim their innocence through their suave shoulder-pad wearing mouthpiece. ‘It wasn’t us, man! See, I’m burning the bad pictures!’
Well, sure, we grant Billy Joel and an entire generation (that somehow STILL RUNS THINGS) tacit absolution for the sins of the past, but how’s about stop sinning then, right?!
That’s not exactly why I write to you today, dear reader! I write to you today, not about the solipsism of We Didn’t Start the Fire: gaslighting the Hamburger Helper generation through the aggressive consolidation of decades of bullshit into a short song – deliberately failing to mention COINTELPRO or MK ULTRA, but it did seem to slide right past those – no, I want you to think about what that song STOLE from you.
The concept of lost futures is not new. Mark Fisher referred to the loss of an anticipated future and, worse yet, that the loss goes deeper than the Jetsons, flying cars, and android butlers to include our very capacity to imagine the present any other way than it currently appears to be. The present, a metabolic black hole, absorbs all light from the past into the singularity and maintain only void in its wake.
Thus, with time out of joint, we look backwards to the past.
Nostalgia, our pyrrhic messiah, here to save us from our spatio-temporal and cultural damnation!
Time, Space, and Culture intersect with Media, and the prevailing social norms to create a mood, well, more a tone really. Rather than a mood of the age, some zeitgeist of prevailing thought and action, a tone of a given age is more accurate in depicting the nature of what I am getting at. Rather than a mood which we may all acquire or a prevailing attitude or mode of thought that we may all collectively find ourselves in, the tone is the quality of an age happening to us. It’s a complex interconnected enmeshment of recollection, the sensual memory, and the resynching through the recollection that comes from experiencing past media through the lens of the present. If you watched the video for We Didn’t Start the Fire any time before 2000 and watch it again, you will see the hyperobject of the past morph – reconfigure itself into a form distinct from both the present and the past you once knew. A digital edit of your memory; interjecting analog tape artifacts where there once were none. You don’t necessarily receive rose-colored glasses, but the view has become sufficiently parallax to loom large and ominous in the mirrored horizon.
So, what was the Eighties, as seen in the rearview mirror of a post-Fordist ambitopia?
Until the unwelcome promotion of nCoV-2019 throughout the global supersystem, the Neo-Liberal takeover of the hive-mind had abolished all socio-political imagination – turning sub-culture into popular culture and any form of ressentiment into a commodity, complete with McDonald’s Happy Meal toy tie-in potential. Fisher, again, called this capitalist realism and suggested that, to paraphrase, Margaret Thatcher proper mind-fucked us all when she declared “there is no alternative” to Capitalism. Well, TINA went on a ventilator and hacked her last in a hospital bed soaked in her own hubris and we are left with neither alternative nor plan for escape.
Oh, right, the Eighties. This was when VHS ruled, no soft light was allowed on television, General Hospital was the vox populi and the most subversive music you heard on MTV were young British autodidacts in Dark Shadows drag. The tape, warped and blurry, produces a shadow artifact as the hunky doctor exits, camera right. The present of the past was a pock-marked high-contrast analog with the abrasive quality of ultra-fine grit sandpaper.
Their past? The past of We Didn’t Start the Fire? The American Exceptionalism positioned contra the Soviet facsimile of an Evil Empire. An era of a clear, existential enemy somewhere far, far away that permitted the continued atrocities that the United States was founded upon and kept constantly reconfiguring to circumvent prohibition. The elegance of the studio era, painted over in the soft blush of faux Technicolor hiding totalitarian white supremacy and the subtle subjugation of the working class. All the daughters sent off to live with their auntie in the country for a few months and sons disavowed, shunned, or shunted away in basements – the filth we sweep under the Frigidaire, that’s what Billy Joel ritually washes his hands of before the televisual multitudes as if to say, ‘I am innocent of the blood of this microwave Americana.’ The “us” (U.S.) of the past (our past-tense selves) could look upon the slapdash colorization of an ancient lived-cinema of the Fifties and did so with little to no ironic distance. That, I say unto thee, is deader than disco.
Is it strange to mourn the loss of the future and the past at the same time?
No flying cars to lease. No Miracle on 34th Street without secretly siding with the humbug mother (just to have her eleventh-hour conversion leave you crestfallen)? What have we left to cling to?
… I say this as I chortle mindlessly for hours; a friend and I obsessively watching everything we can on YouTube from the alternate reality that is inter-Soviet Era Russian Synthpop. One song, in particular, sparked this missive. Kino’s song Summer is Ending (Кино – Кончится лето). The video is a montage of the last gasp of Soviet Russia – images of Yeltsin, tanks, old people dying on the streets from hunger and a bit of despair for an aperitif – all the images everyone east of Berlin saw while everyone west of Berlin watched Scorpions perform on the desiccated remains of the Wall.
The first line of the 1990 song Summer is Ending, a muted lament to a disembodied memory:
I’m turning the TV-set off, I’m writing letter to you
That I can’t look at shit anymore
That I don’t have powers anymore
That I’m almost starting to drink, but haven’t forgotten you
The Time is out of joint. The song is a letter, a plea without a request, an admission to a crime that someone else committed. The ghostly recollection of a spectre that periodically neglects the fact that they, in point of fact, are no more. They have ceased to be.
Nostalgia is, in Kino’s 1990 meta-Soviet phase-state, not the looking-back-uponness of perfect brutalist architecture and an Eastern European youth subculture that grew up in the shadow of the Prague Spring – the very moment that disaffect truly created the conditions for the erosion of the Bloc – but the then right-this-momentness of the collapse of all you once knew. The entire known Soviet Universe, abruptly upended – everything they were raised to never imagine they could ask for.
I’m waiting for answer, there aren’t hopes anymore
Soon summer will end.
Imagine, having already experienced the collapse of your society. Now imagine that becoming the touchstone of a new Era. The turmoil of that period is now a distant memory – immanently recollectible, yet temporally distant.
The temporal end of the Soviet Era seemed to be inspired by the Fall of the Evil Empire during, if not a bit before, the actual fall. The times were changing, but the tone had already shifted, and Billy Joel seized the metonymic pitch pipe to set the tone of the West at G Major (while leaving the decay of the past at f sharp).
The name of Billy Joel’s 1989 album, on which We Didn’t Start the Fire can be found? Storm Front. Just Sayin’
In that moment, the moment you first sang along to “children of thalidomide,” you were trapped. You had been transported from one cultural moment to another. All innocence had been syphoned out, the newly rarified commodity replaced with the cynicism of the 90s and the realization that, without an external enemy, America (and its allied nations for that matter) would finally look within.
So, where are we now … “pinin’ for the fjords?”
Worse. We miss a past we never lived.
We imagine the resignation of the Soviet youth. We pine for that resignation in the face of the looming future dystopia and misremembered parallax past. The drab uniform malaise, the stilted and sparse Soviet Era – not the one lived by the youths of East Berlin or Warsaw or Luhansk – but the one that lives in the Western imagination, served as the sly counterpoint to our Sunny Delight, acid-washed jeans, Family Ties, Pepsi-Cola, Mike Tyson, Marlboro, and Delta 88. We really did have it all, until THEY had to go and lose everything!
Flip the mixtape, let’s listen to Side B in reverse.
To look backwards, we immediately forego all objectivity. All the apperception we can muster is invested in the present. In fact, that’s not true. We are pre-eminently focused on the immediate future. One step ahead, and one step only. To lift our gaze to any horizon is a bitter, jagged, noxious cacophony. Better that we walk through the ambitopia with the single best portable framing devices ever created – themselves the invention that presages the autopoiesis of its utility.
Our jealousy for the post-Soviet post-apocalypse is almost a cloying subcutaneous fiction. A strong-man leader, a social order stripped of any ironic distance decades ago, the immaculate
fucking blinders, and the cold sallow hand of a omnipresent social control should anyone step out of line … just like we used to have L
What, then, is the connection behind the “Western” (because the idea of The West is another sallow, self-serving fiction) transmogrification of nostalgia of Soviet Synthpop?
Once again, Mark Fisher is years ahead of us on this one. In his retrospective Ghosts of My Life (2014), Fisher writes of the mood (or, tone, more appropriately) of late-1970s Britain as encapsulated by the band Joy Division:
“More than anyone else, Joy Division turned this dourness into a uniform that self-consciously signified absolute authenticity; the deliberately functional formality of their clothes seceding from punk’s tribalised anti-Glamour, ‘depressives dressing for the Depression’ (Deborah Curtis). It wasn’t for nothing that they were called Warsaw when they started out. But it was in this Eastern bloc of the mind, in this slough of despond, that you could find working class kids who wrote songs steeped in Dostoyevsky, Conrad, Kafka, Burroughs, Ballard, kids who, without even thinking about it, were rigorous modernists who would have disdained repeating themselves, never mind disinterring and aping what had been done 20, 30 years ago (the 60s was a fading Pathe newsreel in 1979).”
… but Joy Division wasn’t exactly Synth-pop … was it? Take the concept of “pop” out of it.
The form, the synthesizers were in Britain long before they were part of popular music. Joy Division’s first album, Warsaw, had keyboards featured in the instrumentation but locating the synth sound would be like locating a guitar chord in Kraftwerk’s Autobahn. Ultimately, the question is irrelevant for our purposes.
The more relevant question is the point of Synth-pop – it was a futuristic sound (modernist even) – by the time synth sound found its way into the post-punk band The Normal’s song Warm Leatherette, an homage to J.G. Ballard’s novel, Crash, the tone had already inherited Science Fiction’s DNA through Delia Derbyshire and Wendy Carlos. The morose dystopian fringe of Wendy Carlos’ theme for the film A Clockwork Orange and dark optimism of Derbyshire’s original theme for the television broadcast show Dr. Who, inspired by the all-clear sirens during the WWII blitz of her youth evoked a mixture of melancholy and a hope for the future – an uncanny admixture indeed.
What we get in its wake, now that the Synth-pop future has past unrealized is what Fisher, by way of Derrida, refers to as Hauntology, the aforementioned phantasmagoric yearning for lost futures. What we may add is the loss of the present and past as well – we sit out of time, looking backwards is all we may now do … and the view is distorted by the apperception that we now have some supposed modicum of hindsight. In this way, we are fooled by our belief that we can encapsulate the past while constantly reviving and (playing at) reliving it.
No, we don’t experience past, present, or future clearly. The time is out of joint. We straddle the fourth dimension, unsure of our destination and hoping for guidance … waiting for an answer. We languish, our imaginations flitting between the next capitalist diversion or strong-man despot. The joyful nostalgia of a masterfully edited past is matched only by the cacophonous silence of our unimaginable futureless future.
Still, we seem to enjoy our Kafkaesque ambitopia, this Eastern bloc of the mind. All Billy Joel really did was chop a brick out of the Berlin Wall and sell it to us as memorabilia of a past that we will never properly remember.
The time is out of joint
Soon Summer will end
I’m almost starting to drink
I’m waiting for answer
But haven’t forgotten you
O cursed spite
That ever I was born to set it right
There aren’t hopes anymore
I’m turning the TV-set off