Memory and Popular Culture

Is memory at the crux of popular culture? If it is right that, as Frederic Jameson (Antinomies of Postmodernism), Giorgio Agamben (Profanations) and countless others have suggested, recent culture is defined by a continuous present, by an inability to make new memories, it is also right that popular culture makes this failure its programme.

The topos of memory provides popular television, music, and film with a self-enclosed circuit of self-mythologisation, an easy access to powerful feelings of some ineffable horizon, deathly but safe, dazzled by time. Nowhere is the closed circuit of myth-making more obvious than in the Broadway musical, where broad spans of time and event are contained by a more-or-less successful schematic of action which pivots on the presentation, toying with, and finally re-interjection of the big number. This song encompasses the heart of the show at the level of symbolic economy, expresses the fall and rise of the love story necessary to most musicals of the Golden Age in three or four weighted minutes. Films that introduce actors alongside grabs from the action of the film at the credits, like those that tack a blooper reel at the end, toy with this same tension of automatic work-memory.

The inherent tragedy of the impossibility of making memories butting up against this desperate play for memory can produce great, sublime work. Is this not what hauntology, hypnagogic pop, and all the rest are about? The fuzzed, dissolving phantasmagoria of Broadcast, like their neon poetry lyrics, is a glorious musical staging of this tragedy. As Broadcast’s masterpiece, Tender Buttons, looks back through a never-eighties to the pathos-filled psychedelia of the United States of America and of post-Pet Sounds Brian Wilson, so Wilson looked back to a childhood then fragmenting in fading rainbow colours. Each artist looks with the eyes of others, searching for some truth, some stable ground of the Real.

I was put in mind of these things when watching an episode of the US Office. In the episode, Jim and Pam, two of the leads, finally get married. In doing so, their friends and family perform the famous JK Wedding Entrance Dance that received massive exposure on YouTube last year. The Dance involves various members of the congregation coming down the aisle in a tightly choreographed sequence set to Chris Brown’s ‘Forever’. The original clip, though sweet enough, had left me with a slightly unpleasant feeling, vaguely thinking about the desperate desire for validation and public exposure that characterises so much contemporary media, even when the participants are innocent contributors. Yet in the joyous retelling on the Office, the impossibility of use (in Agamben’s phrase, a phrase that gestures at the simulated aspect of so much discourse), becomes the source of a gorgeous nostalgia impossible to resist. Set implicitly to memories of Jim and Pam’s touching romance, and explicitly to memories of events untold, out of sequence, temporally fractured and therefore emotionally rich, where we see the two going off for their actual wedding, in secret, in order to counter what they knew would be the crassness of their friend’s celebrations, the re-ritualised dance pulls directly on the core of popular memoradelia. The music, a slice of mediocre autotuned electro-pop, becomes here a soaring modern torch song, glistened by the pall of lost time. The Wedding Episode is effective in its comedy and its form, but it is the strange geometries of memory and nostalgia called up by the staging of the JK Dance that set it apart as an apotheosis of its kind.

Popular culture is in a dreamcycle of self-lament, circling itself in beautiful, failing shadows of permanence. ‘High’ forms, classical models of art, of course mythologise no less the uncanny nature of time and memory, but the peculiarly synchronic memory formation of certain examples of popular culture seem singularly charged.

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