OMG is like Rihanna like OK like
I think Farrah Abraham’s My Teenage Dream Ended is a pretty great album, and anyway since Alex Macpherson drew people’s attention to it, the consensus does seem to be at least that it is an interesting record. In the ensuing discussion, though, people have got stuck up on the question of Abraham’s intentionality: can a reality TV star really have “meant” to produce such a strange, dissonant and disturbing album? Perhaps I’ve just been immersed in postmodern theory too long, but I’m not sure what this means. Unless you want to contend the album is the result of random chance or the blind working of natural laws, of course it’s intentional; what does something so obvious have to do with aesthetics?
Thinking about this reminded me of Austin’s essay, “Three Ways of Spilling Ink,” in which he considers various different ideas that cluster around intentionality. The three accidental ways of spilling ink of the title are unintentional, careless, and purposeless, which correspond to three ways we might characterize an action: intentional, deliberate, or on purpose. Austin uses “intentional” to refer to the same distinction I was using above, between actions that are the result of some kind of conscious choice and purely natural or chance movements. “Deliberate” adds to this by delineating those actions which are not just the result of choice, but of some special level of care. “On purpose,” finally, refers to actions described in terms of some result that the agent specifically had in mind. I think these latter two ideas are closer to what people are talking about when they discuss Farrah Abraham, but I’m still not sure of their utility. The question of deliberateness, or technique, can be an interesting one to discuss, but surely the question of how a work produces the effects it does is secondary to the consideration of what those effects are. The question of purposiveness, on the other hand, is complicated by the fact that it is always relative to the way we describe an action: if I reach out to pick up a cup of water and in the process spill some ink, one and the same action is on purpose under the former description, but not under the latter. In the case of creative works, the range of descriptions we can apply is huge; almost certainly, some of these descriptions are and some are not ones under which we could say the work is “on purpose,” but why should this be relevant in deciding which descriptions tell us most about the work?
Take the case of My Teenage Dream Ended. The album was released alongside an autobiographical book of the same name, also by Abraham, so presumably part of the purpose of the album is to in some way express the experiences Abraham narrates in the book; but was the purpose of this particular sound to express that particular emotion? It’s hard to know, but also hard to see why that’s relevant. What the album does do is express a certain set of affects, and it finds a cluster of forms that are particularly appropriate to these affects. That’s what makes the record so great: it takes the materials of contemporary pop music and through them expresses aspects of contemporary experience in ways which are unexpected but also perfectly accurate: the pop-rave synths and paranoia of “After Prom,” or the alienated emotion and X Factor contestant pianos of “With Out This Ring….” and of course the omnipresent autotuned cut-ups of fragmentary inarticulacy.
I wonder if something similar isn’t happening in Rihanna’s Unapologetic. A product of a slicker pop machine, it’s not as abrasive as Abraham’s record, but it’s still quite a tough listen in the enthusiasm with which it inhabits a number of pop trends (the dubstep drop, the Guetta soar). You could attribute this, of course, to the iron logic of the music industry: Rihanna is a pop star, the argument would go, and so the content of her records is determined by producers and managers, her own agency drops out. But here we would be getting caught up again in an unexamined notion of intentionality, in which artists are either wholly autonomous or utter puppets (it’s probably not a coincidence that this dichotomous characterization of agency is most likely to be applied to women, or feminized pop stars). If agency is something other than absolute autonomy, the structures of the music industry are a condition of possibility for the particular agency at work in Rihanna’s records; and what better way to speak about that condition than to inhabit the aesthetic forms bequeathed by the industry?