Musical Innocence: Connan Mockasin and Salut C’est Cool

28 February 2018

Connan Mockasin is a guitarist and singer-songwriter from New Zealand who has become a luminary among indie musicians and listeners.  He has collaborated with Beck and Charlotte Gainsbourg, and has been reviewed favorably on Pitchfork.  He gave a set of concerts in Los Angeles in December 2017, and an excerpt from one performance has recently been uploaded to YouTube.  I’ve listened to this recording perhaps a dozen times over the past week.  It’s superb stuff: Mockasin is a diabolically good guitarist, with a sound that can evoke Jimi Hendrix filtered through Dorian Gray, an alternation of precision and indolence.  He can also sound mournful, as in his signature song, “Forever Dolphin Love”, or shimmering and mineral as in “Faking Jazz Together”.  In his LA show recording, he played in his more recent guise, an unctuous mixture of soul and jazz that might best be named after the album on which it appears, Caramel.  For this latest Mockasin incarnation is, like caramel, gooey and golden and oversweet, recalling stylistic excesses of 70s and 80s black pop like the Isley Brothers, Prince, and pre-Thriller Michael Jackson, without sounding derivative.  The highlight of the concert recording is the cameo appearance of Sexy Sax Man (a.k.a. Sergio Flores), a social media superstar thanks to his guerilla-flash performances of the sax solo from George Michael’s “Careless Whispers” that made the rounds in 2011.  But in his appearance with Mockasin, Flores was tastefully sleazy on both sax and flute, and the backing synths and absence of drums or bass made the set spacious and light, rather than bogged down in cliché.  This lack of a wink-and-nod is itself surprising, for when I first read the description of the video, I eagerly anticipated trashy kitsch, some eye-rolling send-up of the two artists’ respective triumphs.  My expectation says more about me than Mockasin’s music.  For I fell into the trap of letting theory dictate artistic practice, and then was astonished when art went in a different direction.

The theory to which I’ve clung is the result of my age and historical situation.  Growing up during the end of the Cold War, I fancied aestheticized portrayals of apocalypse, simultaneously fearing and hoping that the end would come.  But that end hasn’t come, and regardless of how bleak or mad the present moment may seem, I have to admit that I am still alive, that humanity stumbles on, and that life is better than the all-encompassing death I half-expected.  My aesthetic theory also depends on “retromania”, the phenomenon whereby popular music and culture resurrects or reuses past materials, styles, and images.  My mistake has been to assume that retromania today is as purposive a gesture as it was, say, in the 1980s, when idealizations of the 1950s were political in content.  (I mean here moments like The Smiths’ resuscitation of rockabilly and James Dean; the television show Happy Days; the film Christine, etc.).  In listening to Mockasin, and as I’ll mention below, the French group Salut C’est Cool, I am beginning to need a new, better theory to explain the exuberance of this music.  While my instincts and training were shaped by Adorno’s aesthetic theory, a theory that linked art and trauma, the music I want to consider here points toward more affirmative virtues.

It is a forgivable error to assume that trauma is contagious, that it will infect those who learn of it through secondhand accounts as thoroughly as it devastates those who experience it personally.  Trauma is necessarily horrible, something that does not afflict its subjects in moderation.  For Adorno to have foreseen that the trauma of genocide and war that he narrowly escaped would eventually recede into the annals of history would have been difficult, even for him.  To paraphrase Ivan from Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, it would have been wrong for Adorno to accept the harmony that historical distance would eventually bring to his specific trauma.  Adorno’s aesthetics assume the universal horror and persistence of trauma, its ability to level all of us into shell-shocked victimhood.  But Adorno’s assumption contradicts the first tenet of his theory of music, that 1) historical specificity demands dialectical engagement with forms and style, not merely passive re-usage.  Gustav Mahler’s use of high and low styles, from Viennese classicism and canonic repetition to burlesque country dances, was mediated by his living at the precise moment when high classical music was at the beginning of its decline.  A look backwards and forwards in history, and up and down in social hierarchy, was the privilege Mahler’s music enjoyed, the reason why no one before or afterwards could compose as he did.  The second plank of Adorno’s theory was the result of his flight from German national socialism and his arrival in a Californian sanctuary that, Adorno was certain, was headed straight for its own version of totalitarianism: 2) Mass culture and popular music cultivate alienation, which we palliate through consumerism and other distractions.  The repetitious rhythms and lyrics of Adorno’s favorite object of disdain, “hot jazz”, encouraged a dispersed attention span, perhaps what Brian Eno had in mind decades later when he created “ambient music”.  The third part of Adorno’s aesthetics is, for me, the most challenging: 3) To demonstrate fidelity to the ideal of beauty, artists must avoid creating conventionally beautiful art.  Adorno articulated this succinctly in his grim dictum: “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.”[1]  Adorno died before he could have seen the truth of this statement borne out in a cascade of purposefully barbaric art and music, from Viennese Actionism to punk rock and noise music.  Late-twentieth- and early-twenty-first-century music has often wallowed in idioms and materials previously discarded as ugly or cacophonous or undesirable, not in order to elevate barbarism, but to mourn what we have lost with the advent of barbarism.  And often, such music is quietly sentimental, even romantic, underneath its harsh exterior, upholding an aesthetic order of the past because it hopes for the re-imposition of metaphysical order.

What is thus so striking about Connan Mockasin’s music is its lack of trauma, despite the fact that it engages with a particular slice of musical past.  My Cold War childhood and my time reading Adorno conditioned me to believe that anyone thinking about the past, italics intended, would necessarily lapse into irony or depression.  And while Mockasin’s androgynous thrift-store fashion is quirky, and while his fine features and blond hair recall Klaus Kinski, there is nothing neurotic or Kinski-like about his music, which although comedic is also perhaps the healthiest and most well-adjusted pop I’ve heard in some time.  Listen to “My Love Is Waiting For You”, a track off of Caramel.  A straightforward account would say that the song fits into an easy-listening, adult-contemporary niche, with a groovy, laid-back melody and mid-tempo beat.  The account would also state that the song has touches of R&B, especially when the backing vocals slide upward.  This literal description misses the moments of excess: the mid-tempo beat is just a bit too slow; the groovy, laid-back melody just a bit too lush in its reverberation; the pitch bends just a bit too long, approaching the state of underwater music.  If there were an iota of irony in Mockasin’s delivery, this track would come off as cheeky, as in the music of Ariel Pink or Kreayshawn or, for that matter, The Talking Heads.  But irony here is absent, and if I first thought that Caramel‘s excesses were sleazy, I have come to realize that they are the very opposite of sleaze.  They are manifestations of musical innocence.

I do not suggest that there is anything naïve in Mockasin’s music.  Unlike naïveté, musical innocence requires a choice to stay pure in intention; it is not an accidental windfall of ignorance of one’s choices.  There is a similar type of guileless faith in the work of the French group, Salut C’est Cool (for which the English translation is “Hi It’s Cool”).  They are a group of five guys in their early-twenties.  Salut C’est Cool has a robust YouTube presence, and my favorite among their videos is “Révélations mystiques”.  The music sounds like a DIY version of Daft Punk, a lean techno that could be made either by seasoned producers or teenagers working in their parents’ basements.  This track makes the most sense when heard with its accompanying video, for as the lyrics list what could be perceived as New Age platitudes (“we are all galaxies because we are all made up of billions of solar systems of electrons and nuclei”, “everything is connected”, and other mystical truisms), the footage uses tacky 2000s-era graphics to wrest these truths out of the banal: the blinking lights on a green flashing pharmacy sign become the slow swirling of a döner rotisserie; the reflection of a late-afternoon winter sun on a windshield becomes the circle of a watch in a display case; a trash heap becomes the vague buzzing of flies in the summer twilight.  The simplicity of Salut C’est Cool’s technical apparatus can obscure the sincerity of this music.  These fellows are not particularly hung up about being perceived as profound or artistic.  But their music is both profound and artistic, precisely because it is also innocent and committed to exactly what it describes, mystical discoveries.

While Salut C’est Cool is its own beast in terms of its materials and methods, this innocence makes me think of another artistic movement concerned with innocence and revelation and play: Dadaism.  But history tells us that the Dadaists were preoccupied with the trauma of World War I, when unimaginable methods of slaughtering humans were introduced.  The Dada response to this absurdity was absurdity in kind, the type of beautiful insanity that conceived of sonatas composed entirely of nonsense syllables (as in Kurt Schwitters’ Ursonate) or strange poetry and consumes (as in Hugo Ball’s Karawane).  No one would accuse the Dadaists of naiveté or reactionary thinking.  And this makes me regard the music of Connan Mockasin and Salut C’est Cool not as blissfully unaware of trauma, but as all too aware of that trauma, and as choosing to cope through absurdity and purposeful innocence.

[1] Theodor W. Adorno, “Cultural Criticism and Society,” in Prisms. Trans. Samuel and Shierry Weber. 17-34. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, pg. 34.