Saturday, 30 October 2010

The Leader of the Pack (Freud and The Shangri-las)

Produced by the legendary Shadow Morton, ‘Leader of the Pack’ locates Charles Darwin's dominant male in the midst of the Blackboard Jungle of an American High School in the early 1960. As Ellie Greenwich, one of the writers recalls, it is about ‘that bad guy that every girl wanted to go out with ... then there was the motorbike. Back in the sixties, when you started making money, you’d buy a motorcycle’. Just as, on the lawless plains of Africa according to Darwin, it is the biggest, baddest primate who hoards all the females, so it is the meanest, coolest guy on the fastest motorbike who ‘every girl’ wants to go out with, particularly in popular post-war High School myth. In ‘Totem and Taboo’, Freud does not argue with Darwin's evolutionary reasoning about sexual selection in The Descent of Man, but does note that human societies have always involved prohibitions, notably on murder and incest. Freud speculates that these prohibitions arose out of the violent sacrifice of the tyrannical leader, his authority becoming internalized, through shared guilt, as moral law. Freud's lesson to modernity, then, is that the death of God leads not to a liberation of enjoyment, but to a redoubling of its prohibition.

The Shangri-las reject this model. For Freud, a mythical originary act of rebellion and murder retroactively grounds law in a guilty parricide. The Shangri-las rewrite this this myth for the post-war baby boom generation, its romantic rebellion introducing a new law of consumption in place of prohibition. The Shangri-las’ myth discloses that modernity has moved into a new phase: they sing from a different position to the murderous sons and brothers, and without the strange remorse that derives, Freud speculates, from a disappointment at discovering that no man can individually occupy the dominant place, consequently prohibiting it. Their anti-oedipal tale is told from the point of view of the women, a position neglected by Freud. But not by Lacan, who suggests, in Seminar XVII, that the women would have had other ideas.

The Shangri-las' version of ‘Totem and Taboo’ is, fittingly, not a macho tale of male rivalry, violence and tragedy, but a romance in which death and melodrama are, of course, key elements. Named after an imaginary earthly paradise -- the hidden valley in J. Hilton’s Lost Horizon -- resonating with an all-too conventional promise of some feminine verdant cleft, the Shangri-las foreground the kind of utopian bliss, or Nirvana, that Freud associated with the death-drive. Though, on first hearing, 'The Leader of the Pack' seems to describe a tale of male rivalry and prohibition: the tyrannical nature of paternal law is negatively affirmed and atoned for by the sacrifice of the young biker who assumes a symbolic place in death. 'Is that Jimmie's ring you're wearing?' Jimmie reminds us of Jimmie Dean, crash dead by the time this song was a hit, and already the symbolic leader of a new rebellious generation of baby boomers. The function of the Ego-Ideal is transferred, via the crash, to the signifier in whose name rebellion is authorised, and an unspeakable jouissance promised.

But this would be to misread the song. For a start, it is clear that the romance between Betty and Jimmie has not been forbidden absolutely. In order for the paternal function to shift smoothly from father to surrogate son, the father would have had to have uttered the classic paternal prohibition: 'you will go out with that bad lad over my dead body!' Jimmie's sacrifice then guarantees the transfer of paternal authority on the father's terms. However, this is not what happens at all. While Betty's folks complain about Jimmie, are always 'putting him down', and are apparently unhappy about his background, they do not stop her riding with him on a regular basis and having a great time. All the other High School girls are jealous. She's even wearing his ring. Then, 'one day', she decides to find someone new. Her father's law is invoked, but as a law that demands novelty rather than moral judgement. He is not reported as saying 'find someone better', in a moral sense, but merely 'find someone new'. The suspicion remains, then, that Betty's invocation of paternal law is simply an alibi. While her father, no doubt slumped in front of the tube watching re-runs of 'I Love Lucy', remains vaguely disgruntled, it is Betty herself who has decided she needs a new boyfriend. As her friends say 'What do you mean when you say you better go find somebody new?' The Leader of the Pack is nonplussed: 'He stood there and asked me why?' Che vuoi?’ Poor Jimmie pathetically inquires after the desire of the Other, but is met with silence: 'All I could do was cry'. Clearly, Betty is bored and is looking for someone with a better, faster bike. At least, this is how Jimmie interprets her tears as he accelerates off in a vain and fatal attempt to go faster, to keep up the demanding pace. The song is of course about amorous rejection. Betty knows that the Leader of the Pack is no mean, bad lad: he's just a bit sad, the cause of regret and a few tears, but no great loss and easily upgradable.

The Shangri-las' 'Leader of the Pack' re-writes Freud's originary myth according to a more arbitrary and technological law of novelty, consumption and performance. 'I met him in the Candy Store'. The initial scene of the romance is set in a conventional place of conspicuous adolescent and pre-adolescent consumption of pure luxury items: the Candy Store points towards the sumptuous spectacle of the shopping mall and an abundance of choice, an excess of sweet tempting options. The relationship is no different: Betty, wearing his ring, appears as the choicest sweetmeat of the saccharine horde that he is supposed to lord over. But it is Betty who sets the standard of performance for the male subject, Jimmie, who is precisely subject to the law of the commodity himself. Ultimately, he is no better than, and as replaceable as, his technological prosthesis, his bike. And it is of course the bike, purring and growling at significant points throughout the record that is its real star and selling point. The Leader of the Pack, a potential Ego-ideal like Jimmie Dean, is dependent upon the technological processes that endlessly reproduce his image, to supplement and replace it with a host of Elvises, Marlons, Marilyns or whoever.

The motorbike is pre-eminently, in postwar America, the signifier of transgression, crossing thresholds and barriers. The result of technological innovation and a human desire for speed and thrills, the motorbike ideologically embodies the pioneering spirit of the lone rider of the West, the vehicle of the urban cowboy's 'rebellious' phallic narcissism. But the Shangri-las' 'Leader of the Pack' suggests that this narcissism is staged for the gaze of the Other who always demands more: be more daring, make it bigger, harder, faster: paternal law is secondary to the demand or imperative that seems to drive technological innovation for its own sake: keep up with the pace of the machine that is always just that bit faster, adapt to its always new horizons ... or die in the process. By becoming the very locus of material existence, by marking its threshold, technology functions as the Other: the reservoir of an Other knowledge and, at the limit of that knowledge, an Other jouissance that exceeds the phallic imaginings of the subject. This would therefore be the meaning of the crash for the subject who crashes in this epoch of the incorporated crash: that there is no relation to the crashing machine.

From Fred Botting and Scott Wilson ‘Venus in Foam’ New Formations 46 (2002): 64-84.