Sep 28th, 2018, 07:25 PM

A Rock 'n' Roll Reformist: Ian Svenonius in Conversation at AUP

By Sofie Granberg
Image Credit: Peregrine Olander/Flickr
"Capitalist advertising conventions of sensationalism and hyperbole have created a world of unremitting terror and psychosis."

Ian Svenonius, underground rock musician turned author and pop culture critic, visited AUP this past Wednesday for a live conversation with professors Russell Williams and Eugene Brennan to talk about his writing, opinions on the music industry, and his take on the history of rock 'n' roll. The room was fully set and the audience got engaged in the discussion, asking the rocker about censorship and the future of music.

Originally a D.C. punk rocker, Svenonius began his music career in 1988 as the frontman of punk group The Nation of Ulysses and went on to front several rock bands before landing in his current project, Escape-ism. While working actively as a musician for 30 years, has has also hosted the music talk show Soft Focus on (now, and published three essay collections titled The Psychic Soviet (2006), Supernatural Strategies for Making a Rock 'n' Roll Group (2012), and Censorship Now!! (2015). 

In his books, Svenonius looks at music and pop culture through a political lens, while coloring it with his personality and humor. During the talk, he described his style as "not tainted by academia", and compares it to "the academics of the past", like philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche in that it is comprised only of his own knowledge and criticism. As he said, "You couldn't use this in a book or a thesis, there are facts but nothing is cited. And because of that, it's kind of free."

At the center of both his writing and Wednesday's talk, you find rock 'n' roll. The speakers discussed the history and characteristics, or lack thereof, of the genre, again from a political viewpoint. Svenonius described the folk music of the late 1950s as an "incognito communist party", drawing lines from its music to Stalinist socialist realism. Rock at this time was, on the other hand, a teenage genre lacking this kind of ideological backdrop. Then, he goes on, when folk music was permanently demolished after Bob Dylan discovered The Beatles and drifted towards rock, the rest of the folk movement also found refuge there, and as he said, "brought their weird folk ideology into rock 'n' roll. So this schism has always existed within rock which is a total paradox, which is why it's still fascinating to us today. Or at least to me."

This does not mean, however, that rock 'n' roll is entirely communist in its nature. About two minutes later, Svenonius deems the genre to be the "ultimate art form of capitalism" because of its resistance to being defined from the outside. "Rock 'n' roll has no definition, nobody can define it, nobody can tell you what rock 'n' roll is. It has no characteristic, it's totally elusive. And that's why it is kind of the ultimate art form of capitalism because capitalism is an ideology that doesn't announce itself. It pretends that it's like gravity." 

Svenonius himself does not hide in his writing that he, too, belongs somewhere to the left on the political spectrum. This is evident in his most recent book Censorship Now!! which criticizes many small and large features of modern pop culture and at times presents very anti-capitalist ideas, as the back of the book cover suggests with the sentence "Capitalist advertising conventions of sensationalism and hyperbole have created a world of unremitting terror and psychosis. This book declines to be a part of this. Therefore, it will feature no blurbs on its back cover." This is a good introduction to Svenonius' style and layered humor, but also to the book and how it's theme needs to be interpreted. When looking past the provocative, authoritarian title, the goal of the book is not actually to advocate against democratic freedom of speech and thought. As he answered one student about censorship, "We can't trust authoritarian structures to censor for us, we need to censor ourselves."

After the event, we asked Svenonius about his own position within the culture that his philosophy criticizes, as an artist who himself participates in the music industry. He answered by comparing himself to the religious reformists, "purifying the fame by scorching what they see is impingement to true expression. There's always reform movements in any religion, and rock 'n' roll is just another kind of religion." So while the industry and surrounding politics have their flaws and challenges, Svenonius is no less committed to rock music, because the love for the community and faith in the higher ideal are still there. 

One thing that was clear throughout the evening was that, although Svenonius's books are made up of cultural criticism of a postmodern world, which is often treated with a great deal of pessimism, Svenonius never painted a dystopian picture of our times. When asked about the future of music from an audience member, his response was only optimistic. "Groups are arguably better than ever. They are more drawn and more sophisticated. The reason we see old things as being so bulletproof and so pure is that at some point history shifts and you can't do what has been done before. Nobody can be The Beatles. But we've already seen, every year something new becomes anointed as a classic, and we're like "Really? That's a classic?" But that's all it is."