TNI Vol. 9 Editorial Note: On Music, Utopia, and Failure

Photo | Larry Hawley, Con Funk Shun, Fever, 1983

This is the editorial note to TNI Vol. 9: Concept Album. View the full table of contents here.

Subscribe to TNI for $2 and get Concept Album (and free access to our archive of back issues) today - as well as free entry to our release screening/party tonight in Brooklyn.


“You cheated, you lied; you cheated, you lied,” sings Leonard Cohen, almost inaudibly, over the long fade of “Memories,” a characteristically ambivalent track from his shambolic 1973 album Death of a Ladies Man. These lines, lifted from a canonical doo-wop hit, are ostensibly directed at a high school flame, two and a half decades after the fact, for failing to be true. The wounds over the furtive, frustrating efforts to achieve some sort of sublime contact at a high school dance remain fresh for the man in his 40s singing the song. But he might just as well be singing about old songs themselves, the ones that promised more than he ended up getting. His jaded disappointment can’t fully conceal how stunned he continues to be that the yearning so palpable in love songs never quite translated into a lasting unity, that listening to those songs yields only a fleeting connection that’s already dissolving into a dubious memory before the record ends.

This mix of shock and disappointment inheres throughout Death of a Ladies Man in the ironic — some might say disastrous — pairing of Phil Spector’s wall-of-sound production with Cohen’s dissolute tales of adult sexual desperation. The failure that haunts every song on the album is also the failure of the four-chord progressions which once promised him utopia from every jukebox in Montreal. Bitterness has become inseparable from nostalgia.

This issue of New Inquiry, like Cohen’s Death of a Ladies Man, is about music and failure, about utopias posited and dissipated. But its point is not to argue that music makes nothing happen or that it is everywhere and always mystification and temporary escapism. We’re big enough fans of pop music to know that sometimes the promise of happiness is not always betrayed, that its potential for constructive negation is more abundant than Adorno imagined it could be — even as taste is turned into capital and social media makes self-consciousness about pleasure a full-time job.

But pop has had more than enough glib defense briefs filed in its name since Adorno and Horkheimer arraigned it on charges of mass deception. There’s room for writing about music that acknowledges both sides of Fredric Jameson’s observation that “within the restored Utopian meaning of cultural artifacts ... the will to domination perseveres intact.” Music will always be capable of overwhelming us, but what we make of that, alone or together, is never predetermined.

In the opening essay, Rob Horning links social-media-engendered pathologies of compulsive “oversharing” to the confessional songwriting of the 1970s and of the Mamas and the Papas’ leader John Phillips in particular. Tim Barker and Beth Lesser examine popular music in the social context of the 1970s, uncovering connections between country music and labor militancy, dancehall and electoral violence. Kendra Salois looks at contemporary global politics through the lens of Moroccan hip-hop, while Whitney Erin Boesel probes the limits of Spotify’s promise of “all the music, all the time.” Robin James and Leah Caldwell explore the underbelly of the beat, through French theorist Jacques Attali to contemporary “party rockers” LMFAO. Tavia Nyong’o takes stock of Frank Ocean while Willie Osterweil asks whether punk rock has, at long last, failed. Finally, Greil Marcus offers a brief comment questioning the very meaning of the words music and failure when joined together.

The point of looking at music and failure is not to revel in cynicism or absolve complacency through defeat but to acknowledge that music nurtures despair as often as it redeems it. It instills feelings of exclusion with every moment of inclusivity it inspires (Why does everyone like this song but me?). Recognizing this is essential before we can really hear anything, before we can really surrender to what we think we are hearing.