Repackaging the Archive (Part XI): Decadence and Sincerity in the Risk Society: Partying Until the World Ends

I originally delivered the following remarks at the 2012 Mid-Atlantic Popular and American Culture Association Conference in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. They seem oddly appropriate at the moment.

It is a familiar trope in the rhetoric of the American jeremiad to draw a comparison between the high decadence and subsequent fall of the Roman Empire and the similar decadence of the contemporary United States. So it is tempting to make such a comparison when considering a recent series of pop songs released in the wake of the 2008 economic crisis that celebrate “partying.” Since Lady Gaga’s first single, “Just Dance,” appeared,[1] a series of prominent female pop singers have released music videos that unambiguously celebrate decadence. Ke$ha’s “Tik Tok” (2009), Katy Perry’s “Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.)” (2011), and Britney Spears’s “Till the World Ends” (2011) all portray gyrating bodies having simply way more fun than anyone could possibly have, reveling in their own meta-celebration.[2] Such images easily invite a critique of these videos’ lack of self-awareness, their problematic support of binge drinking, and their apolitical celebration of decadence as a mode of being in a time of global financial crisis and austerity. Inarguably outgrowths of a specific brand of American exceptionalism and a youth culture in which hedonism has become an end-in-and-of-itself, what is perhaps most disturbing about this party program, however, is its relative sincerity.

By focusing on Ke$ha’s invitation to an eternal party, Perry’s strangely sincere meta-filmic nod to the 1980s, and Spears’s dance club at the end of the world, I will argue that these videos should be read not as jubilant affirmations of existence and individuality, but as particularly cynical expressions of life in what Ulrich Beck calls the “risk society.”[3] These singers signal a cultural inability to imagine a coherent future in the face of the present multiplying networks of global risk, and exemplify a need to perpetuate and maintain a decadent cultural fantasy by erasing the disasters and crises that define the present through the spectacle of nostalgically reappropriating the past or fervently anticipating the end.

Lady Gaga’s “Just Dance,” released in April 2008 roughly six months before the full impact of the financial crisis became apparent, functions as a kind of template for the decadent party anthems that would follow:

Notice here that Lady Gaga is already presenting a number of features that will get repeated by both Ke$ha and Perry. The house Gaga enters at the beginning of the video has clearly already been a site of revelry and substance abuse, as the previous night’s passed-out party goers have merely to await Gaga’s arrival before reawakening and resuming the party. Gaga is not separate or detached from the hedonism, but rather a full participant in both the revelry and the blacked-out aftermath of binging. She has perhaps had more to drink than “a little bit too much,” as she asks, “Where are my keys? I’ve lost my phone,” but the deleterious effects of alcohol—e.g. not remembering the name of the club one is in—are “alright, alright” because the solution to whatever problem the world of this song presents is simple: “just dance”; everything is “gonna be okay” if one simply dances.

The logic of this song is repeated almost verbatim to the point of plagiarism in Ke$ha’s own debut, “Tik Tok.” Unlike Gaga’s video, however, when Ke$ha sings, “Wake up in the morning feeling like P Diddy; / Grab my glasses, I’m out the door, I’m gonna hit this city. / Before I leave, brush my teeth with a bottle of Jack, / ‘Cause when I leave for the night, I ain’t coming back,”[5] it is difficult to perceive any irony in her voice. For whether considered by itself or with the considerable retrospect provided by Lady Gaga’s subsequent career, “Just Dance” at least holds out the possibility of critical self-awareness toward the hedonism the song appears to be advocating. For not only does “Just Dance” acknowledge that something may actually not be all right with the world—that things need to be made okay, somehow—but that perhaps “just dancing” is not an adequate or acceptable solution to the problems being presented. In other words, an ironic reading of the video is not foreclosed, and the call to “just dance” might very well mean something else.

The partying Ke$ha’s “Tik Tok” advocates, on the other hand, appears to foreclose any reading other than full-blown support for the decadence of the video, as it is difficult to argue that its hyperbole is in any way tempered by self-awareness. The partying Ke$ha portrays is not in reaction to anything or offered as the solution to a problem, but rather is something that she says, quite clearly, never stops. Partying, even if it doesn’t start until Ke$ha walks in, is a state of being in “Tik Tok.” (If the party starts when she walks in, then it is going on around her all time time.) Decadence becomes a kind of perpetual present, a nightmare eternal return of partying and drunkenness, resulting in hangovers that, one might imagine, also never end. Ke$ha cannot stop partying, whether she’s doing something as banal as brushing her teeth or whether she’s being groped (“boys tryin’ to touch my junk”) “the party don’t stop, no.”

In this way “Tik Tok” is emblematic of life under late capitalism. The logic of Ke$ha’s nonstop party wagon depends, like current theories of the free market, on the exploitation of illimitable resources so that it can grow without end toward no goal other than its own disastrous perpetuation. Further, as someone once pointed out about the cultural logic of late capitalism,[6] the song has no sense of history (other than an incoherent reference to Mick Jagger), and it is incapable of acknowledging the history of its own form (i.e., its blatant indebtedness to Lady Gaga). Simultaneously, the video is unable to posit any coherent sense of the future (let alone imagine some kind of utopian project). The song and its title, “Tik Tok,” while acknowledging that time exists, subsumes the human experience of temporality within the regime of its party-ontology, foreclosing any past or future. If Frank Kermode were once able to famously read the poetic expression “tick-tock” as “a model of what we call plot, an organization that humanizes time by giving it form,” then Ke$ha’s song remains only “the interval between tock and tick [a] purely successive, disorganized time of the sort that we need to humanize.”[7] In other words, the experience of the perpetual present of Ke$ha’s decadence eschews any narrative structure, any sense of a beginning or end that would make sense of the actions of the party’s participants. Consequently, there is something deeply inhuman about Ke$ha’s call for constant partying, and I do not think it too much of a stretch to equate the inhumanity of Ke$ha’s pursuit of unending decadent pleasure that has no other aim than the production of more pleasure with the inhumanity of being implored to constantly enjoy that is so much a feature of the contemporary experience of late capitalism. “Tik Tok” thus evinces a profound despair about the state of the world, one in which the fleeting present of youth, with its all-too-brief but ultimately damaging and disastrous holiday from history, is the only option left in the wake of the global financial crisis. Both the past and the future have been foreclosed, and Ke$ha’s song only holds out one incredibly cynical alternative: forget about the world and turn toward a solipsistic and uncritical pursuit of pleasure at the expense of everything else. And the most disturbing part of this injunction-to-enjoy is how sincerely this message is delivered, with no alternative imagined or even hinted at.

Something similar occurs in Katy Perry’s “Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.)”[8] and Britney Spears’s “Till the World Ends.” If “Tik Tok” is a nightmare glimpse of an eternal present with no sense of a past or future, Perry and Spears are emblematic of further failures to engage with history or imagine a future from within the regime of contemporary decadence. To turn first toward “Friday Night,” consider the following moment from the video, right when Perry receives the classic 1980s filmic makeover that turns a nerdy girl into a (more-or-less) conventionally attractive one:

The logic of this video is persistent. The alcohol-fueled regime of (poorly remembered) contemporary decadence is framed by the nostalgic (and anachronistic) reappropriation of the 1980s. Perry’s nod toward this period, however, glosses over the deep and abiding irony of 1980s popular film that she draws upon so heavily, an omission perhaps best evidenced in the video’s use of saxophonist Kenny G. Not even the sax player on the original track, Kenny G’s “lip-synched” sax playing functions strangely. Rather than being used ironically—i.e., everyone knowing that Kenny G is thoroughly uncool, but pretending to like him in an ironic, hipper-than-thou manner anyway, as would have been historically appropriate—he is presented as the apotheosis, both musically and visually, of the video’s nostalgia. In Perry’s historical vision, it is Kenny G that fully represents the past, even though anyone who could actually remember him would have thoroughly reviled his music. Juxtaposed against party-goers playing Just Dance 2 (2010) and the presence of the house band, the pretty much always reprehensible late-1990s boy-pop group Hanson, history from within the logic of Perry’s decadence becomes merely a playground of now empty cultural signifiers that can be strung together in whatever loose fashion serves the video’s own fairly obscure ends. This is only exacerbated by the appearance of Corey Feldman and Debbie Gibson as Perry’s parents near the end of the video, who serve to reinforce how incoherently popular culture from the relatively recent past is perceived from the decadent alcohol-haze of contemporaneity.

Though he was describing a possible future for American fiction rather than what I am calling “Lady Pop in the Age of the Networked Star,” David Foster Wallace’s comments on sincerity that conclude his 1993 essay, “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction,” on the relationship between irony and postmodern cultural production, might equally apply to the strange sort of sincerity I would like to suggest that “Friday Night” displays:

The next real literary “rebels” in this country might well emerge as some weird bunch of anti-rebels, born oglers who dare somehow to back away from ironic watching, who have the childish gall actually to endorse and instantiate single-entendre principles. Who treat of plain old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction. Who eschew self-conscious and hip fatigue. These anti-rebels would be outdated, of course, before they even started. Dead on the page. Too sincere. Clearly repressed. Backwards, quaint, naïve, anachronistic. Maybe that’ll be the point. Maybe that’s why they’ll be the next real rebels. Real rebels, as far as I can see, risk disapproval. The old postmodern insurgents risked the gasp and squeal: shock, disgust, outrage, censorship, accusations of socialism, anarchism, nihilism. Today’s risks are different. The new rebels might be artists willing to risk the yawn, the rolled eyes, the cool smile, the nudged ribs, the parody of gifted ironists, the “Oh how banal.” To risk accusations of sentimentality, melodrama. Of overcredulity. Of softness.[10]

Though clearly Perry is neither “literary” nor much of a “rebel”—even in the sense Wallace gives the word—she most assuredly appears “willing to risk the yawn, the rolled eyes, the cool smile, the nudged ribs,” for she does not appear to be desiring any other reaction to this video. Rather than be impressed by her hyper-self-aware postmodern recursive reflexivity, her anachronistic, Pynchonian use of reference used in the necessary service of debunking and exposing the illusions of postmodernity, her audience is merely encouraged to affect a cool smile of knowing (but not really knowing) that Kenny G’s presence in the video is slightly off, a bit too sincere even as it attempts to produce the kind of ironic stance that once was not a staple of popular culture, but a violent critique of its implicit and uncritical assumptions. In other words, in the same fashion that Wallace once relentlessly critiqued postmodern televisual production for cashing in on the literary irony of Thomas Pynchon et al, Perry is cashing in on the naïve sincerity of the present, a sincerity perhaps best captured in the phrase, “just express yourself.” Even in something that on its surface first appears to be hyper-referential and recursively ironic becomes, in Perry’s vision, yet another articulation of the overwhelming call of contemporary mass media to: just be yourself, express yourself, be true to yourself, in other words, to be sincere. What the self is that is being expressed, however, is anyone’s guess.

Britney Spears takes this sincerity, as she puts it, “to the next level”[11] in a video that unintentionally contemplates the eschatological horizon of the solipsistic, yet empty sincerity of contemporary decadence. Her video for 2011’s “Till the World Ends” is set on 21 December 2012—the purported date of the Mayan Apocalypse—as what appears to be a meteor approaches the Earth. In the video Spears and a gang of rejects from the Mad Max films, in light of this dire situation, have decided to stage a dance party at the end of the world:

There are a number of striking things about this video and, to my mind it is a fairly incredible allegory for certain contemporary approaches to global risk. First, the disaster Spears and her cadre of orgiastic pre-post-apocalyptic dancers anticipate is thoroughly fantasmatic. We are not within the realm of the (still realistic) cultural fantasy of Mutual Assured Destruction that Donald E. Pease and others have located as the dominant US national fantasy of the Cold War,[13] nor are we within a postmodern simulation in which the disaster explodes into reality that Slavoj Žižek finds when he analyzes the attacks of 11 September 2001.[14] Rather, the disaster fantasy here is a loosely fabricated fringe-eschatology thrown together by people trying to sell books by exploiting the historical deferment of the millennium, something that Norman Cohn pointed out long ago has been going on since at least the Middle Ages.[15] For Spears, in other words, the Mayan Apocalypse is just the most convenient and visible contemporary sense of an ending, and its lack of any correspondence to the very real, very persistent contemporary sense of disaster, whether it be ecological, economic, or political, matters not in the least. What matters is merely the fantasy of apocalypse. We are living in what Ulrich Beck calls an era of “global risk,” so the pervasive and ubiquitous sense of disaster that characterizes the world risk society gets transformed in Spears’s eschatological vision into whatever old disaster she wants. Divorced from the realities of the last decade, the natural disasters, the various wars being fought by the US, and a time characterized by what Naomi Klein calls “disaster capitalism,”[16] Spears is able to sublimate the anxieties and fears of contemporaneity and turn them into a dance party that, even with disaster looming literally right outside of its door, cannot seem to concern itself with the impending doom nor step away from the decadent enjoyment of the club long enough to attempt to avert.

So second, it is further striking that in “Till the World Ends” the disaster appears to have actually been averted. One is encouraged, I believe, to imagine that the dancing was so good, that Spears and her pals got “on the floor” so well, that the meteor was diverted, and though there is little-to-no diegetic evidence to support such a reading, this redemption-through-dancing speaks to the pervasiveness of the fantasy on display so blatantly in Spears’s video and the depths of its cynical despair. Not only does the video exemplify a cultural inability to imagine other modes of being or a coherent sense of the future that is not eschatologically foreclosed by the conditions of contemporaneity and its redemption-through-partying validates solipsistic decadence as a proper mode of reacting to disaster in an age of global risk—i.e., ignoring it—but “Till the World Ends” suggests that this decadence actually might save us from disaster—i.e., that if we all just partied enough, kept dancing hard enough, the world might not end.[17] The horizon of this stance, if we recall Ke$ha’s “Tik Tok”—and it should be mentioned that Ke$ha also co-wrote “Till the World Ends”—is that if we just let capitalism run its course far enough, that if we all just ignore the increasingly dire ecological realities, economic catastrophes, global violence, and just keep enjoying ourselves, everything will be “okay.” This is in no way to suggest that we should be looking to these female pop stars to articulate a coherent politics, that if pop music was less decadently fantasmatic it might solve problems, et cetera. But it is to suggest that these videos brilliantly capture contemporary modes of decadence and put on display, with very little window dressing whatsoever, the solipsistic sincerity that ideologically props up this decadence. And of course it is fitting that I am delivering this paper mere days after Hurricane Sandy devastated the East Coast of the US and only a week before an election in which climate change and the environment have been discussed precisely zero times by the candidates. In other words, the world is ending and we need to stop dancing.


[1] Lady Gaga, “Just Dance” (Santa Monica, CA: Interscope Records, 2008), 12” single. The single was released on 8 April 2008, and her full-length debut album, The Fame, was released 19 August 2008 (Santa Monica, CA: Interscope Records), mere weeks before the full impact of the financial meltdown became apparent. Like so much else in her career, Lady Gaga was ahead of her time with regard to post-crisis decadence.

[2] For these videos see

[3] See Ulrich Beck, World at Risk, trans. Ciaran Cronin (New York: Polity Press, 2009).

[5] Ke$ha, “Tik Tok” (New York: RCA, 2009), CD single. The single was released 7 August 2009, and Ke$ha’s full-length debut, Animal, was released 1 January 2010.

[6] See Frederic Jameson, Postmodernism; or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1991).

[7] Frank Kermode, The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction with a New Epilogue, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 45, emphasis mine. I would also mention that Robert Lowell’s “Fall 1961,” in which “Back and forth, Back and forth / goes the tock, tock, tock,” is really about “All autumn, the chafe and jar / of nuclear war; / we have talked our extinction to death” (Collected Poems, ed. Frank Bidart and David Gewanter [New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003], 329).

[8] Hereafter “Friday Night.”

[10] David Foster Wallace, “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction,” in A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again: Essays and Arguments (Boston: Back Bay Books, 1997), 81.

[11] Britney Spears, “Till the World Ends” (New York: Jive Records, 2011), CD single.

[13] See Donald E. Pease, The New American Exceptionalism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009).

[14] See Slavoj Žižek, Welcome to the Desert of the Real!: Five Essays on September 11 and Related Dates (New York: Verso, 2002).

[15] See Norman Cohn, The Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages, rev. and ex. ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1970).

[16] See Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (New York: Picador, 2007).

[17] As David Foster Wallace once said of something else, this is so stupid it practically drools.


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