Sunday, November 30, 2003

Deconstructing Wilco

The song "Heavy Metal Drummer" on Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot has the following lyric, which, if you're moderately familiar with deconstruction, will just about make your head explode:

I miss the innocence I've known
playing Kiss covers
beautiful and stoned

The speaker's putative pre-fallen "innocence" reveals itself in the very same line as something that is "known". Just as the fruit of knowledge of good and evil (which led to the archetypal ex-Edenic Fall) itself grew in the Garden of Eden, the innocence of the speaker itself harbors the decidedly fallen (influence-polluted or "knowing") act of "playing Kiss covers". The artist's original voice of innocence is always already fallen, in the fully Derridean sense.

But the really striking thing about this passage is that the speaker's conception of innocence strikes us as completely banal. A century and a half ago, Wordsworth and the Romantics sought out their original voices in pristine nature, seeking a sublimity that transcended the merely human. In their own, arguably more complicated way, so did Emerson and the Transcendentalists. Of course, however majestic its artistic achievements, the project was doomed --- when we seek out transcendence, we are chasing an inevitably human idea (deconstruction does get that much right). As Wilde famously remarked, Wordsworth "found in stones the sermons he had already hidden there". But nevertheless the binary opposition between nature and artifice persisted as a powerful feature of consensus reality well into the twentieth century.

Denying (or deconstructing) that opposition once had a certain noteworthy frisson. Indeed, the pulsating ebb and flow of a character's illusory escape from (and reintroduction into) social constructions of identity is the engine that powers much great High Modernist fiction, from Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man to Invisible Man.

No more. [*] The contemporary construction of innocence no longer even bothers to wear the fig leaf of freedom from a priori influence. Innocence is knowingness, so much so that we don't even find it remarkable when people conceive of youthful innocence in terms of playing Kiss covers.

(Unless, that is, you're a former English major who occasionally falls off the wagon of literary theory abstinence and compulsively overanalyzes some random pop cultural artifact.)

In any case, Wilco's album kicks ass. And no, I am not stoned (or beautiful).

[*] This is a placeholder to indicate the spot where, if I were a real journalist, I'd probably insert a formulaic Matrix reference to give my article more editor-pleasing topicality.

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