“Cruising Utopia” with the radio on ???: Jose Munoz’s utopian queerness and !!!
Jose Munoz’s Crusing Utopia focuses mainly on visual, performance, and literary artworks. However, there are a few musical references in the text; for example, the last chapter is titled “Take Ecstasy With Me,” after the Magnetic Fields’ song of the same name. Similarly, the book has an extended discussion of “ecstasy.” Ecstasy, in Munoz’s view, is an excess (somewhat like Heideggerian “ek-stasis”) of affect or feeling, and is found in/produced by queer gestures, especially dancing.
What I find interesting about Munoz’s discussion of dancing and ecstasy is that it focuses entirely on gesture and totally ignores dance music.* Munoz extensively considers dancing and ecstasy without ever considering what seems to me quite obvious: acid house, the genre of dance music (mainly associated with 1990s British youth culture) composed and intended to be experienced under the influence of ecstasy. Simon Reyonlds has several books (Blissed Out, Generation Ecstasy, etc.) that clearly lay out the relationship between ecstasy and acid house. Munoz’s exclusive focus on the visual/textual dimensions of “ecstasy” is also somewhat puzzling, given the fact that ecstasy generally does not affect visual perception to the extent that it impacts other senses (this is why there were so many light/video effects at raves: ecstasy itself did not enhance participants’ visual experience, so visual interest had to be created in more material, non-pharmacological ways).
So, I think there are a lot of ways that Crusing Utopia approaches acid (house), but never commits to it. What, then, about acid? What happens if we take some E with Munoz’s queer utopianism?
Given Munoz’s reference to the Magnetic Fields, and his extended consideration and condemnation of Giuliani’s renewed enforcement of the cabaret laws,** I think the band !!! may be a helpful intermediary between Munoz’s dancing around acid and acid house proper. [I’m working on a piece that considers the relationship between Munoz’s queer utopianism and the musical and performative work of Genesis P-Orridge, who some consider to have invented acid house…but more on that in later posts] !!! is a Brooklyn-based band that is heavily influenced by Hacienda/90s British rave darlings The Happy Mondays.
When dealing with music, Munoz locates queerness mainly in lyrics; I want to look at the formal and stylistic dimension of the pieces, and locate the queer structures/strategies/devices Munoz identifies in queer viz and performance art in !!!’s music. Such strategies include: (a) the deployment of the past in order to reimagine the present/future (what I will call “critical memory,” and most importantly (b) an aesthetic of failure.
The most evident point of commonality between !!! and Munoz is the band’s cover of “Take Ecstasy With me”. Have a listen:
While the Fields’ version looks to the past lyrically (“I used to slide down the carpeted stairs”), !!!’s cover orients itself to the past musically—i.e., it appropriates a ‘90s musical style. In general !!!’s style seems to combine the catchiness (and oftentimes goofiness) of acid house and the languid dreaminess of shoegaze—both genres originating and reaching their peak of popularity in 1990s Manchester (UK). “Take Ecastasy With Me” applies this acid/shoegaze feel to the Fields’ very twee original. In so doing, it looks both to a no-longer-present (the 1990s were literally in a previous century), and to a not-here (Manchester UK, not Brooklyn, NY). According to Munoz, this no-longer-present and not-here is a form of ek-stasis, of standing outside of one’s present. Put differently, taking and
knowing ecstasy is having a sense of timeliness’s motion, comprehending a temporal unity, which includes the past (having-been), the future (the not-yet), and the present (the making-present) (CU, 186).
I’m not certain about !!!’s orientation to the future, but their cover of “Take Ecstasy With Me” clearly critiques the spatio-temporal present (US indie rock, which in the early 2000s was very rock-focused and which, as “Me and Guiliani” makes explicit, !!!’s dance orientation was specifically critiquing) by turning to another time and another place. In other words, !!! looks to the era of ecstasy in ordero to deploy an ek-static aesthetic, an aesthetic grounded in critical memory. In this way, both versions of “‘Take Ecstasy with Me,’ [are] request[s] to step out of the here and now of straight time” (CU, 186).***
Their cover (again, like most of their work) also evinces an aesthetic of failure. In the early 2000s, !!! was among the leaders (along with The Rapture, LCD Soundsystem, and Le Tigre, to name just a few) of a resurgence of indie dance music rooted in punk, no wave, mutant disco, and other indie genres. Punk, no wave, and mutant disco all make use of strategic failure: think about Johnny Rotten’s failure to remember the lyrics of both “Johnny B. Goode” and “Roadrunner,” about James Chance’s herky-jerky demand not to dance but to “Contort Yourself!”, and the Slits’ failure to sing in tune on their cover of “Heard it Through the Grapevine” (which actually shares a lot, aesthetically, with !!!’s style). So, !!! was taking inspiration from styles rooted in failure, and we can hear it in the piece in the following ways: (a) most blatantly, at the 5:30 mark, the vocalists’ attack on “Take” is really sloppy, more like “T-T-T-Take”, (b) Nick Offer’s vocals always verge on being out of tune, and always sound like the result of very minimal effort, (c) it gets very noisy around 4:40, and threatens to fall apart, and (d) the production values and instrumentation sound effectively rustic when compared to ueber-slick mainstream dance music (e.g., Giorgio Moroder’s “Utopia,” off his 1978 From Here to Eternity; clearly, the difference between Moroder’s Utopia and !!!’s is that the latter adopts an aesthetic of failure, while the former’s precision (and use of choirs) sounds sorta fascist). Munoz defines the aesthetic of failure as follows:
a punk ethos that celebrates a certain kind of nonmastery that is failure…deliberate failure to achieve melodic or choreographic conformity. Instead, on the level of movement and sound, we see a brilliant offness. This is a modality of being off script, off page, which his not so much a failure to succeed as it is a failure to participate in a system of valuation that is predicated on exploitation and conformity. The queer failure…is a failure that is more nearly a refusal or an escape (CU, 174).
!!! refuses the imperatives of mainstream dance music: they refuse to be on pitch, on time, to be quantized, to be slick and smooth. In so doing, they refuse to offer us a soundtrack that will encourage us to feel mastery of our dancing bodies. They are funky AND awkward, so when dancing along with their music, our bodies never move seamlessly or smoothly. It encourages the “kinesthetic stuttering…movement that not only stutters but also twitches…that represents a problem within modernity’s compulsory dance steps” (CU, 147). Like Frank Herko’s dancing, !!!’s dance music rejects normative hetero embodiment (e.g., the norms that say that dudes can only approvingly nod or headbang along to music) for a funky and awkward queer one, a la Arthur Russell. According to Munoz, this twitchy awkwardness comes from standing outside oneslf, from ecstasy: the ecstatic “surplus is not simply an additive; it distorts—a stuttering particularlity that shoves one off course, out of straight time” (155). So, to dance to the aesthetic of failure is to awkwardly stand outside/beside oneself—it is to take ecstasy.
So, !!!’s music shows us that Munoz’s queer strategies are evident/at work in music actually made by/for people on ecstasy. Or rather, that his definition of queerness applies not only to pre-Stonewall visual and performance artists, but also to acid house (and other dance genres that come, at least in part, out of/through punk). But what about actual ecstasy, MDMA?
What about ecstasy itself? Is ecstasy really the best metaphor for Munoz’s queer utopianism? Munoz’s utopianism is offered as a collectivist response to Lee Edelman and Leo Bersani’s anti-relational theories of queerness. Munoz privileges dancing because the thinks it is a uniquely collective practice. He
considers the dance floor as space where relations between memory and content, self and other, become inextricably intertwined…It may do so because it demands, in the openness and closeness of relations to others, an exchange and alteration of kinesthetic experience through which we become, in a sense, less like ourselves and more like each other (CU, 66).
MDMA was/is the drug of choice for ravers because it lowers inhibitions, thus making users more eager to dance, and to express affection (this latter effect is very well known and often parodied, e.g., in the film Human Traffic). These ravers took E in order to escape the Thatcherism that rendered them superfluous; in keeping them perpetually un/underemployed, it robbed them, as it did their West London punk forebearers, of any sense that they could have a meaningful future. By taking E, these 24-hour-party-people created a space that was actually fun, not dreary and soul crushing.
The difference between Munoz’s metaphorical use of “ecstasy” and ravers’ actual use of ecstasy is that the latter were not interested in imagining alternative futures,**** but in creating a pleasurable—and, importantly, communal and affectionate—present. MDMA is a stimulant that heightens attention and focus, allowing one to pay attention to details one would otherwise ignore or find uninteresting….how else could you keep up with Jungle’s dense, rapid-fire polyrhythms? It’s not dissociative or psychadelic, it’s about being hyper attentive to the here and now.
So, what does this tell us about Munoz’s theory of queer critical utopianism? First, it tells us that he may be drawing a false dichotomy between his position (futurity!) and Edelman’s position (no future!). If we “take ecstasy” the acid house way, the we see that the modalities of queerness Munoz otherwise privileges (critical memory, the aesthetics of failure) do not necessarily lend themselves to critical utopian futurity. They can lead us to different ways of attending to the present. They can also lead us to different ways of critiquing the present—through failure, through deployments of the past—that do not require us to predicate this critique upon or ground it in some vision of a future. Even if Giuliani enforces the cabaret laws, we’re still dancing over here in Brooklyn. Even if Thatcherism robs me of the possibility of a meaningful future, “the weekend has arrived,” and I sure am finding some meaningful escape from my meaningless life. Take ecstasy with me, baby.
* “I look at the dance floor as a stage for queer performativity that is integral to everyday life…considers the dance floor as space where relations between memory and content, self and other, become inextricably intertwined…the dance floor increases our tolerance for embodied practices. It may do so because it demands, in the openness and closeness of relations to others, an exchange and alteration of kinesthetic experience through which we become, in a sense, less like ourselves and more like each other. In my analysis that does not mean that queers become one nation under a groove once we hit the dance floor. I am in fact interested in the persistent variables of difference and inequity that follow us from queer communities to the dance floor, but I am nonetheless interested in the ways in which a certain queer communal logic overwhelms practices of individual identity. I am also interested in the way in which the state responds to the communal becoming” (CU, 66)
** “Recent developments in New York City, such as the Giuliani administration’s reanimation of archaic cabaret-license laws that have been used as a tool to shut down and harass various queer and racial-minority bars in New York City” (CU, 66). !!!’s biggest hit is their single “Me and Guiliani Down By the Schoolyard,” which is a scathing critique of the cabaret laws.
***There’s not much else that these two versions share other than this use of critical memory. Well, there’s the use of the gurio (the scraped percussion instrument), and the string melody…but the lyrics are markedly different in the cover, as is the cover’s use of rhythm, it’s general compositional form (a 7-min dance track, not a 3-min pop song), and overall feel.
****“What we need to know is that queerness is not yet here but it approaches like a crashing wave of potentiality. And we must give in to its propulsion, its status as a destination. Willingly we let ourselves feel queerness’s pull, knowing it as something else that we can feel, that we must feel. We must take ecstasy” (185).