Every Little Star

I.

I filled in a long-standing gap in my cultural knowledge recently and watched Lynch’s 2001 noir masterpiece Mulholland Drive. That’s the sensation, right? Where listening to records or watching films in an era of unprecedented access begins to feel a bit like doing homework.

Except Mulholland Drive is, itself, an almost unprecedently interesting film, one capable of arousing sensations in the viewer which he was previously unaware existed.”Uncanny” is used frequently to describe a Lynchean landscape, a place where things are simultaneously banal and extraordinary, both incredibly familiar and unnervingly off.

There’s a scene in the film during which one of its central protagonists, a successful Hollywood director, auditions lead actresses for his screenplay. Shadowy organizations are pulling strings behind the scenes so that the casting decision is essentially out of his hands, but he cycles through the motions regardless, asking several of the actresses to perform different 50s pop hits in a mock-up recording studio. One of these (diegetically) auditioned actresses is played by (real life) Melissa George, singing the rendition of “I’ve Told Every Little Star” shown in the footage below.

And suddenly, though Lynch never intended it, this uncanny sensation of familiar-unfamiliar set in. See, I’d heard the opening pop hook — the one George sings around fifteen seconds into the clip — before, and not from Linda Scotts, who performs the track’s original version. I’d heard it in Christopher Owen’s “Heroine (Got Nothing On You),” off of the 2015 album Chrissybaby Forever. Except this isn’t where things became uncanny.

I’d written up Chrissybaby at the time of its release for a piece on irony and sincerity over at Rare Candy Magazine. This meant I spent inordinate amounts of time in preparation, listening to the record until I knew it intimately. It isn’t surprising that I so instantly caught the melodic overlap in Drive.1 What’s surprising is that I’d had the exact same uncanny sensation when I heard “Heroine” the first time, almost a year before ever watching Drive and with limited exposure to Lynch. Back then, I had sworn Owens was referencing Blondie, specifically “Tide Is High.”  Here’s what I wrote:

One element of this sappy enthusiasm that does frequently work is Owen’s eager, unabashed embracing of the music he loves, often by offering his own takes on (or straight rips of) famous melodies. It’s a welcoming break from the fetishization of originality (and, congruently, authenticity) in contemporary indie music, an attitude so far removed from the frequent inclusion of standards and traditionals in early-to-mid-century records. On [Owen’s] Father, Son, Holy Ghost it was “Die”’s “Deep Purple” reference; here it’s “I Love You Like I Do” (“Canon in D”) and “Heroine” (“Tide Is High”).

In Drive, an array of young, white actresses sporting blonde bobs slip in and out of the storyline, variations on an aesthetic theme. Two are eventually revealed to be the same character, played by Naomi Watts, but make-up and context disguise this shared identity. To the audience, there is a simultaneous sensation, whenever one of the actresses appears, of newness and recognition. This turns out to work fairly successful as an analogy for my experience with the hook of “Every Little Star.” I’d come into contact with four variations on the same song, discovered primarily independently of one another and without any clear indicators that they were homage. When I sent the melodies to a friend with a better set of ears, he replied with the following:

[The songs] are all using a I-vi-IV-V chord progression, which is a telltale 1950s telecaster sequence. On its own, this progression is fairly common and can sound pretty different depending on treatment, but when it’s wrapped in with that melody it gets painted with a sort of Buddy Holly-in-love feeling. Chris Owens does sort of a repetitive version, while Debbie [Harry, of Blondie,] does the I-IV-V, a more traditional pop pattern. It’s almost pretending to be a different genre or sensibility until then she throws the six in and you’re back to slurping milkshakes at the diner.

I’d pinned one down track (Owens “Heroine”) as being a copy of another, only to discover that what I’d thought was the original (“Tide Is High”) appeared to be yet another variation. Or perhaps it was the case that all of them, Scott’s “Star” included, were copying some other, unknown source text. Perhaps it was even some sort of freak convergent evolution, an incredible cosmic coincidence that these tracks had happened upon similar hooks.

II.

Writing about music requires listening to records repeatedly, a process which itself brings up all sorts of critical problems. (This is one the great challenges for all brands of criticism: identifying structural mechanisms which affect and therefore bias reception.) For one, playing a record dozens of times over a short span of time leads to listener burnout — a building apathy towards both the immediate record at hand and towards music in general. This effect derives in part, from the classic Tom Sawyer set-up, where as soon as an activity is made mandatory it ceases to be pleasurable (whether this mandate comes from a publication, in the way of assignment with a deadline, or through the aforementioned pressures of cultural consumption and well-versedness). But even when listening to music for personal, non-obligatory, low-stakes reasons, musical moments can lose their luster over repeated listens. Best-case scenario, awe shifts to appreciation: “When beloved records are worn in by time and listens, they transition from holders of divine sparks to paragons of craft, from bringers of ecstatic shiver to cerebral wonders of design.” Worst-case and every note induces nausea, seasickness; the album is relegated to collecting actual or digital dust.

Of course, there are always more records; at a personal level this isn’t necessarily an urgent issue. Old loves can be rediscovered, and letting an album inhabit so many hours of one’s life forms an unbreakable connection between music and moment. Future listens become time portals of personal nostalgia.

At a critical level though, this generates substantial issues. Is the best time to formulate a definitive opinion, to write and publish a review, when the record is at peak enchantment? Say, after half a dozen rotations when every chorus sounds larger than life? Perhaps better to wait until spin sixty, when it hurts to even look at the cover design.

Certain albums take longer to grown on a listener, while others are almost instantly appealing and then decay in value. Critical consensus seems to be that so-called “growers,” boasting long lifespans and making demands on listener patience, are better art than more immediate pop hits, which burn brightly and disappear. Getting to the sixtieth spin, testing record’s legs and durability, might seem the more precise method — keep notes along the way to track progress and development, compare experience over time. Erowid effects charts come to mind. But is the headache-hangover the best perspective from which to judge the merits of drinking? If not, then when? 12 a.m. or 12 p.m.? Perceptions change, and hindsight isn’t always more accurate. (“I mean it, I’m never ever drinking again.”) All sorts of cognitive biases, including peak-end rule, affect how we look back on experiences after they’re over, molding perceptions in ways that aren’t actually faithful to an event’s cumulative value.

Owens’ “Heroine” was not, to this set of ears, a grower. It was an instant hit, the type of track that I’d entertain putting out as a single had I been in charge of release strategy. I’m now left wondering whether the reason the song was so quickly successful in trapping me was because I’d heard its primary hook before, because I’d already been won-over and familiarized to its internal logic via “Tide Is High.” The process of listener acclimation to new music, art, and experiences — their learning curves, even — had been effectively eliminated. (I can think of no greater example in recent memory of a track as instantly catchy and quickly irritating as Drake’s “Hotline Bling,” a cut essentially composed of five minutes of chorus. The user is so rapidly indoctrinated into that chorus’s internal logic, gains such a familiarity with it through repetition, that a sensation of intimacy develops before the song even ends.)

This acclimation process is almost certainly due to the fact that the brain gets melodic and harmonic pleasure from anticipation: if the listener knows what’s coming at the apex of a big pop hook, knows exactly when or how it’ll drop and then winds up correct, his neurons flood him with dopamine.2 This might also be why, when listening to a well-worn LP in order rather than on shuffle, there’s such a palpable pleasure in the transitions between tracks — the listener knows exactly which song comes next, and how it will begin, maybe even the exact pitch of the first note. Hit pop records bank on this phenomenon of desirable familiarity, of established intimacy between audience and work, by using a small and powerful collection of stock chord progressions. But they also simultaneously rely on enormous libraries of obscure, never-before-heard textures and sound samples so that the subtle sonic details of a piece lend it a degree of surface-level novelty. Billboard hits are, like Lynch’s films, the perfect hybrid of the familiar and unfamiliar, though they use this hybridity to achieve entirely different effects.

Pop and experimental music, then, typically so antagonized, can be seen as operating within a larger spectrum-cum-system of how audiences interact with culture. Their chief difference is merely the ratio of foreign to familiar, a ratio which corresponds to the patience (and toleration of discomfort) of the disciplines’ respective audience. I write in “A D Jameson & the Avant-Garde”:

There seems to be a two-step process of artistic innovation and progress: the avant-garde discovers new ground but often has difficulty turning its experimental works into something aesthetically appealing. Figuring out which scouted ground can be best incorporated into, and used to mutate, contemporary art (and then finding a way to synthesize the innovative techniques of the A.G. with established, more familiar ones) is usually a separate role from that of a “true” avant-garde artist. [Kanye] West isn’t doing the experimentation himself so much as he’s masterfully discovering and identifying contemporary experiments that have been successful, then morphing and integrating them into a cohesive, aesthetically appealing whole.

III.

For all that has been written by postmodern scholars about cultural nostalgia’s ideological causes — social discontent, economic downturn, class relations, utopian backfirings — very little has been said about its aesthetic undergirdings. The mechanism this essay has thus far explored — the powerful effects of combining familiar and unfamiliar elements in art — might also help explain the power of nostalgia in popular culture. Because we already know and understand intimately the cogs of older culture — the chord progressions, the guitar tones, the pleasurable white noise hiss of an LP — when they’re repurposed and repatterned in new ways (retro rock acts, Tobias Jesso Jr.) we can’t help but instantly like them in the same way I couldn’t help but love “Heroine.” We’ve already been conditioned perceive favorably the aesthetic decisions at hand. Such works are simultaneously old and new, familiar and unfamiliar, and we love them for it — so long as the proportion of familiarity isn’t so high as to trigger internal alarm bell “rip-off.” Whether the existence of this alarm bell is an ideological issue — some fetishization of authenticity which lessens our enjoyment of an overly derivative work — or else simply an aesthetic weariness towards the original motif (a desire for variation, that is), there’s certainly an upper limit to acceptable imitation, as well as a corresponding expectation of minimum newness.

This ideal ratio is entirely personal, contextual, subjective. Not in the sense that everyone has a different upper boundary of tradition, or a minimum standard of novelty — this is obviously and intuitively true. But in the sense that everyone’s cultural exposure (and therefore knowledge bank) varies. As a result, what will seem tired and highly imitative to one will be fresh and thrilling to another. Dopamine cares not for some absolute “truth” of a work’s originality, only the relative novelty to a single set of eyes or ears. If this familiar-foreign ratio is a major determinant of value, then, it seems necessary to separate subjective value of effect from some more objective, vacuum-sealed concept of artistic merit. Nitsuh Abebe writes in “Sea Level”:

Right now, for instance, I’m listening to a compilation of music from Madagascar. I have zero idea whether it’s good, relative to other compilations of music from Madagascar […] I could be “misunderstanding” big chunks of it — maybe […] the little guitar trick that sounds so great to me is a tired old cliché to someone in Antananarivo. But it doesn’t really matter [to me or others unfamiliar with world music].

This phenomenon is arguably a large part of what makes up the difference between so-called critical and personal taste, if the former is some Platonic, absolute level of innovation and novelty, asymptotically approached as a listener (as critic) becomes more musically informed, and if the latter is simply the perceived interestingness by a given real, human listener. A Madagascar music enthusiast will have a more developed critical assessment of Abebe’s compilation; Abebe is merely working off his own personal knowledge bank. It’s also worth noting that large personal knowledge banks are a trade-off: they make a lot of cultural products seem tired, weary, uninteresting, and trite; many popular works of art, which are created for, and successful with, small-knowledge-bank audiences can seem joyless. But large personal knowledge banks also make plenty of art accessible which wouldn’t be otherwise, the sort of niche, experimental, and avant-garde works which appear as complete, impenetrable noise to uninformed, out-group consumers. Even though the song itself is unchanged, Owens’ “Heroine” seems to me lesser — less enjoyable and less artistically impressive — now that I knew almost all of its functioning parts exist elsewhere.

IV.

I’ve written a fair amount academically about cultural nostalgia, and when I started delving into this niche, I had a grand theory that contemporary culture’s over-saturation of the vintage and retro was a product of disappointed expectations. The narrative went something like this: In the 20th century, conceptions of the 21st typically included vitameals, jet packs, and flying cars. Society was often eutopic, and commercial space travel ubiquitous. Because the date “2000” was such a conceptual marker, “the future” in popular conception shifted from an ever-receding horizonline to a fixed position in time; some conception of an impossible utopia was assigned a concrete deadline. When the early 2000s actually arrived, instead of interstellar travel we were beset with climate scares, Y2K, September 11th, and continued Middle Eastern conflict. Disillusionment results.

It turns out this general phenomenon is known as millenialism. It even has its own Wikipedia page. The cultural critic Simon Reynolds had, in fact, made an almost carbon-copy argument to my own just three years earlier in his Faber & Faber book Retromania:

…despite the campy tone of band names like We Were Promised Jetpacks or book titles like Where’s My Jetpack? A Guide to the Amazing Science Fiction Future That Never Arrived, underneath the arch there’s an ache of genuine longing. When I asked James Leyland Kirby about his Sadly, The Future Is Not What It Was album, he talked about wishing he could ‘look out of those childlike eyes still and believe that if I want to live on the moon soon then I will be able to, or when I meet a friend I will put on my jetpack and be there in seconds instead of having to walk there.’ Kirby suggested that the year 2000 had always possessed a special reverberation. Switching from ’19’ (the numeric signifier for the twentieth century) to ’20’ seemed like it should automatically place us on the other side of a great divide, as if we’d made an abrupt leap into the future. But of course the new millennium has so far turned out to be barely different from the tail end of the last one.

As can be gathered from the above excerpt, Daniel H. Wilson’s Where’s My Jetpack?  also touched on similar ideas. It seems inevitable that there are other writers out there, working in other fields, members of other intellectual circles who have published variations of this basic argument (an argument that, for the record, I no longer endorse as a primary or even major driver of contemporary nostalgia; an argument which feels too teleologically neat, and too ideologically grounded, to me now; an argument which I’ve updated with some of the aesthetic and psychological explanations mentioned above).

There’s room for an intellectual crisis here. Like creative production, intellectual production today is enormous, too enormous to ever make a substantial consumptive dent in. Inevitably, then, so many books, articles, essays, philosophical treatises, will end up echoing each other unconsciously, the product of convergent evolution, of attempting to solve similar problems with similar sets of tools, of finding similar sets of solutions appealing. We’re past the Milton Point, and it’s now impossible to know everything that exists in order to create what doesn’t already. Perhaps critical and nonfictive solace can be found, then, in its treatment of creative and fictive disciplines: overlap is inevitable, utter originality yields impenetrable noise, and the most interesting moments of an argument or idea come in the minor variations, the small differences, the details in presentation, execution, and philosophy.

There’s another angle for productive optimism, though: If a 21st century producer is concerned with charting a course of high “absolute” originality, the path ahead may be difficult. If he is lucky, the quantity of worthwhile artistic ideas and innovations is as infinite as the amount of stars in the sky; as we progress artistically in any one direction, more will simply reveal themselves from the depths of cosmic darkness. But even if this is not the case, then relative, subjective “effect-oriented” value can still be as attainable as ever. Common culture is collapsing, fragmenting, individual knowledge bases diversifying. Bringing old elements to new audiences can be, from a consequentialist perspective, just as valuable to those audiences as inventing a new element. We know that a text untranslated is useless to those who cannot read it; the translator, then, is in effect creating as relatively valuable a literary text as the original author. And sometimes, when two variations of a text, or perhaps a translation and original, are both accessible to an audience, their combination, their contrast, the little changed details between versions — perhaps the way that Lynch layers in a dark, brooding ambient synth, barely detectable, under George’s “Every Little Star,” or when later in the film, Rebekah Del Rio sings Roy Orbison’s “Crying” in Spanish — perhaps these subtle modifications can, with a little compound interest, become as important of contributions to culture as the greatest inventors and paradigm shifts.


 

Notes:

A lot of this essay’s layout, content, and subject matter orbit in strange ways around Mark Richardson’s “Taking Pictures of Taking Pictures.” It’s a piece I’ve known intimately since its publication in 2011, and it would be borderline unethical to ignore the debt this current essay owes to it.

Endnotes:

[1] Though I’m merely shortening Mulholland Drive‘s full title here, it’s worth noting that Nicolas Winding Refn’s 2011 film Drive visually references Lynch’s masterpiece throughout, taking as inspiration Mulholland Drive‘s vintage cars and shots of downtown Los Angeles at night.

[2] This makes a lot of sense alongside Jürgen Schmidhuber’s theory of pleasurable art as pattern-teaching: Prediction is essentially the recognition of patterns and/or causal relationships in service of anticipating future events, a skill which has obvious evolutionary benefits. Might poetic rhyme, like familiarity, cause reader pleasure by allowing an unacquainted reader a higher probability of successfully predicting future words, expressions, and ideas?

Papillae:

Connie Steven’s “Sixteen Reasons” is also sung in Lynch’s film, and is heart-wrenching.

Mike Powell at Pitchfork points out that Lana Del Rey may very well have modeled her aesthetic off one of the blonde actress-singers in Mulholland Drive, specifically Melissa George. Rebekah Del Rio, who sings “Llorando” in Drive is brought up as a potential namesake for Del Rey, and it’s noted that the latter singer has herself covered music from Lynch’s soundtracks.

The aforementioned variations on the “I’ve Told Every Little Star” are far from all-inclusive; were merely the more tasteful of aesthetic examples. Mac Miller samples the hook on 2010’s “Knock Knock,” and The Lumineers rehash it in an acoustic guitar riff for “Falling.”

Girls (Christopher Owens): “Die”