Stereolab’s Revolutionary Horizon


Stere­o­lab is an intellectual’s dream, equal parts vin­tage synth man­ual, obscure bossa nova record, and com­mu­nist tract. Their fetish for odd key­board and odd jazz is well dis­cussed, but their lyrics, often deeply Marx­ist, far less so. The one excep­tion is “Ping Pong,” the lead sin­gle from 1994’s Mars Audiac Quin­tet.

It’s a song, improb­a­bly enough, about the Kon­dratiev waves, a model for mark­ing long tem­po­ral cycles of cap­i­tal­ism. We can hold a rig­or­ous exam­i­na­tion of the accu­racy of Kondratiev’s schema to the side for a moment, as con­sis­tent peri­odiza­tion of cap­i­tal­ist accu­mu­la­tion cycles, while inter­est­ing, doesn’t get us very far into the song. What is far more com­pelling is Stereolab’s own the­o­riza­tion of cap­i­tal­ism: as a loop.

It’s all right ‘cause the his­tor­i­cal pat­tern has shown
How the eco­nom­i­cal cycle tends to revolve
In a round of decades three stages stand out in a loop
A slump and war then peel back to square one and back for more

Big­ger slump and big­ger wars and a smaller recov­ery
Huger slump and greater wars and a shal­lower recov­ery

Pop lyrics so often focus on indi­vid­ual moments, but this is some­thing else, noth­ing short of the grand sweep of mod­ern his­tory. Or per­haps not “sweep,” but its oscil­la­tion: rounds of accu­mu­la­tion, strug­gle, and cri­sis. Cap­i­tal­ism is a cir­cuit, it is cycle built on top of cycle. It is, in some sense, a loop. Stereolab’s sound is itself a kind of sonic map of cap­i­tal­ist peri­odiza­tion: long notes and grooves lay­ered on top of one another, with slight dis­junc­tures, but often eschew­ing the tra­di­tional song struc­tures and melodies of an aver­age rock song. We are lis­ten­ing to some­thing more sci­en­tific here.

As she often does, vocal­ist Laeti­tia Sadier crams each syl­la­ble into a jar­ring rhyth­mic pat­tern that dis­re­gards the stan­dard cadence of the words in Eng­lish. It’s too sim­ple to chalk this up to Sadier being a native French speaker bum­bling about a for­eign lan­guage; rather, I like to think about such stilted prosody as con­tain­ing its own aes­thetic charge. The com­plex­ity of Sadier’s lan­guage won’t give way to the demands of pop cadence. Instead, she reverses the dynamic: the words are too sig­nif­i­cant to pol­ish away. A pleas­ing meter isn’t worth impre­cise ter­mi­nol­ogy.

“Ping Pong” is good evi­dence of Stereolab’s Marx­ist out­look (though they are often cagey about this), and an easy one. But the group explored sim­i­lar themes ear­lier, in a more direct and rous­ing way, on the group’s 1993 album Tran­sient Ran­dom Noise Bursts With Announce­ments, with some of their heav­i­est riffs. I’m talk­ing about “Crest.”

The lyrics here are sim­ple, but pow­er­ful, and repeated again and again.

If there is a way to build it
There’ll be a way to destroy it
Things are not all that out of con­trol

Sadier’s dis­in­ter­ested tone presents some basic his­tor­i­cal mate­ri­al­ism: no sys­tem, no cus­tom, no mode of pro­duc­tion is inscribed in nature or in eter­nity. This basic premise is often the first step­ping stone to devel­op­ing a crit­i­cal per­spec­tive on cap­i­tal­ism: to denat­u­ral­ize it in order to demys­tify it. In other words, there is, always, an alter­na­tive. If it can be built, it can be destroyed.

As the verse repeats, the music does so as well, the same dense chords of gui­tar and organ. But this is rep­e­ti­tion with a dif­fer­ence: things become nois­ier, increas­ing into a ter­ri­fy­ing squall of dis­tor­tion and rick­ety Farfisa. Here the lyri­cal themes that would later sur­face in “Ping Pong” – “a slump and war then peel back to square one and back for more” – are real­ized son­i­cally. This is cap­i­tal­ism lurch­ing from cri­sis to cri­sis, return­ing to the same logic of accu­mu­la­tion – the same notes – but with deeper con­tra­dic­tions and greater vio­lence. If things are, as the lyrics avow, not that out of con­trol, the rest of the song cer­tainly sounds like they are. 

And yet in spite of the noise, the vocals never lose their unflap­pable tran­quil­ity. One obvi­ous inter­pre­ta­tion of this jar­ring jux­ta­po­si­tion, of a serene invo­ca­tion to keep calm and carry on in the face of capitalism’s sham­bling hor­ror, is sim­ple irony. Such a snicker would cer­tainly fit well with the snark-sat­u­rated ‘90s indie rock scene of which Stere­o­lab was a part. But irony doesn’t apply to this song. The singing is serene, stead­fast, and sin­cere.

It here that “Crest” reveals its value to those in strug­gle today. As cap­i­tal­ism under­goes another round of vio­lent restruc­tur­ing, as futures evap­o­rate, as global ten­sions esca­late, it’s hard to resist the temp­ta­tion to throw up our hands, to give in to the storm or to retreat from it. But “Crest” points the way to a recourse, a shel­ter: the the­o­ret­i­cal and polit­i­cal prac­tice that has fought and resisted cap­i­tal­ism at every step, through every slump, war, and recov­ery, and has unwa­ver­ingly defended this core his­tor­i­cal prin­ci­ple: if there is a way to build it, there’ll be a way to destroy it. 

As new and old gen­er­a­tions peel back to square one and open Das Kap­i­tal for the first, or the dozenth, time, while work­ers go on their first, or dozenth, walk­out, we see the same prin­ci­ple reaf­firmed. Vic­tory is not assured – far from it! – but it is never fore­closed. “Crest” makes the same point that Fredric Jameson does in Valences of the Dialec­tic: “the world­wide tri­umph of cap­i­tal­ism at one and the same time secures the pri­or­ity of Marx­ism as the ulti­mate hori­zon of thought in our time.” Things are not all that out of con­trol.

Author of the article

is a graduate student in Washington, DC.