The Pop Philosophy of Authentic Inauthenticity R.U. Sirius Interviewed by Douglas Rushkoff (Part 3)
“But I must defend Milli Vanilli on this basis — they were false. They were virtual.”
DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: So your music… Before High Frontiers, you were in upstate New York in a band.
R.U. SIRIUS: Yeah, it’s frustrating, because once you get pigeonholed into one area, people don’t want to know. Particularly with music. Every asshole wants to be a rock star. The actor who tries to form a rock band is treated to a great deal of snark and so forth.
DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: Try to defy anybody’s expectations of what you’re supposed to do. Even if you write a book one degree different from the one you wrote before and it’s like… wait a minute, you’ve radically changed. That’s Adorno. As long as we’re cultural products, we’re supposed to be predictable and the same.
Could you trace your music interests from your earliest work through Mondo Vanilli to now?
R.U. SIRIUS: A lot of what happens with me is by accident, both lyrically and musically. It’s a question of who’s around, who you hook up with. The punk vibe has always been a part of what I do. The pleasure of writing lyrics is that I can go anywhere with it and have lots of double meanings and various possible interpretations. And if I write an essay or give an interview, I can be called on for further explication. But when it comes to lyrics, I’m with the Bob Dylan school via John Wayne — “Never apologize. Never explain.” So far, it appears that mostly people don’t get them, but it’s fun for me. I mean, the few people who have listened to “Be My Valerie Solanas” probably think I want to march to the barricades with her… but that’s just one possible interpretation.
DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: How old were you when you were in that first band?
R.U. SIRIUS: I was 29 when I was in Party Dogs. I actually had a recording situation before that in the mid-’70s — unfortunately the tapes are gone. I finally gained the confidence to step up to a microphone at about 23. The Sex Pistols hadn’t happened yet, but the Ramones were around and the New York Dolls had just happened. But our thing with this group called The Spoons was more in line with what Jonathan Richman was doing with his acoustic stuff at that time. I never tried to do something that was edgy in the same way that Mondo 2000 was edgy. I think maybe Mondo Vanilli ended up being that way but I’m happy just to rawk man!
DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: Mondo Vanilli was meant as a kind of culture satire. There was the Milli Vanilli scandal. For young people who don’t remember, the band got caught lip-synching and other people were singing the music for them. So Mondo Vanilli came out, which was kind of a hybrid, as I understood it, of Mondo 2000 and a Milli Vanilli media virus joke.
R.U. SIRIUS: Yeah. So I’m sitting in a coffee shop and I’m reading the San Francisco Chronicle about Milli Vanilli being roasted alive for lip-synching having won a Grammy and I’m right in the middle of a period where people in my milieu are making a huge fuss about virtual reality. And so I’m thinking… first of all, Milli Vanilli sucks totally. They shouldn’t have won any awards. There are like a million songs in front of theirs before it deserves a reward. Nobody should ever have to listen to Milli Vanilli — but apparently some people did that voluntarily.
But I must defend Milli Vanilli on this basis — they were false. They were virtual. So what if they’re lip-synching? Why go through the cliché of having a live band on stage? Why do more clichéd videos with people holding guitars? So the MONDO Vanilli idea was to form a virtual reality band. This was very premature in terms of the kind of technology that was available at that time. And Scrappi DuChamp and I had been writing music together for a while that was sort of poppy. It was a little techno… but it was sort of poppy. So I just thrusted a bunch of industrial music at him and I said figure this stuff out and let’s write some new songs for Mondo Vanilli. So he took his influences, which are sort of somewhere at the intersection of Brian Wilson and Frank Zappa, and then filtered that through this industrial music that he hated… and we came up with Mondo Vanilli.
DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: Now, today, you have new music.
R.U. SIRIUS: Yeah, I’ve been getting lyrics around to a lot of different people. My hope is to work with a bunch of different people and then maybe that will become a very eclectic album. The early ones, particularly “Punching a Nazi” and “Be My Valerie Solanas” are sort of in the style of industrial music. 1980s industrial, I’m told. I don’t know. I stopped paying attention to genres after hardcore punk. It’s by Creosote Cowboy under the sub-identity of R.U. Sirius’s Trippin’ Coyotes. That’s Charlie Verrette. It also has Acatelysteleven on vocals and Pizza T coproducing — just to give the credits where do. I’m on lyrics and kibbutzing only on that one.
Douglas Rushkoff: So the “Punching a Nazi” song is referenced specifically to that guy who punched the Nazi during the television interview.
R.U. SIRIUS: Who was that masked man? (Sorry I grew up on The Lone Ranger.) Anyway, that’s what brought it to mind. Although if you read the lyrics and listen to the song, the feeling is much more The Ramones than Rage Against The Machine. It’s one of those rare cases where I was hearing another voice in my head. I was hearing Joey Ramone. I was hearing “Beat on the Brat” in my head when I wrote the lyrics. So I give myself an out in terms of the song being ambiguous enough that I’m not telling people to go out and punch a Nazi. I’m certainly not going to stop them if they decide to — but I think some people are afraid of the song because they think it’s advocacy of violence. I mean, I probably won’t be punching any nazis myself any time soon so proceed at your own risk.
DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: Just like anything you’ve done, people would think everything that you’re talking about you’re advocating, rather than looking, talking, wondering. You can marvel at something without endorsing it, but it’s really tricky today.
R.U. SIRIUS: Be My Valerie Solanis could be the least-commercial song ever. The names that are dropped in the song are only recognizable to intellectuals and people with some idea of history.
DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: (After playing the song) God, I don’t even know what to say. It’s almost you’re like whatever the 21st century equivalent of a Frankfurt group theorist is.
R.U. SIRIUS: I would hope that whatever I put together could be understood within that context, definitely.
DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: It does seem it’s about the cultural production of itself.
R.U. SIRIUS: Absolutely. And this goes back probably to my earliest lyrics but specifically to MONDO Vanilli. Our album was called IOU Babe. And there’s the song “Love is the Product,” which is very explicitly that. The chorus is The medium is the message/Money makes it dance/Love is the product/The joke is in your pants. Okay, so there’s a cheap joke at the end of it, but that’s what it’s about.
I mean, in terms of cultural production and commodification, it goes back to “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” Two of the three verses are spot on. Really the first counterculture song. Don’t get me started on how underestimated Jagger was as a lyricist. Then again, “It’s Only Rock and Roll” telegraphed his retirement from trying.
DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: Right. I’m just putting out a book proposal now and of course my agent wants me to go with a major publisher so we get an advance and all … and I keep thinking about Walter Benjamin saying the means of production are the product. If you can’t separate your content from the means of production (in the sense that every record is just selling more plastic and every book is just selling more Bertelsmann stock) then how can we create culture without feeding the machine more than we starve it?
R.U. SIRIUS: I try not to be too purist about things, as you know. But that awareness has always been there. With Mondo Vanilli, we had a philosophy of authentic inauthenticity and we contrasted that with inauthentic authenticity.
DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: [Laughs]
R.U. SIRIUS: So we talked about Bruce Springsteen as inauthentic authenticity because (and I like Bruce, but..) he’s someone who comes to you through media. He’s a mediated piece of abstract authenticity. So authentic inauthenticity, the MONDO Vanilli philosophy, embraced David Bowie and Andy Warhol and that sort of pop manipulation as art and contrasted them favorably to people who had the pretense — or who attempted authenticity.
I don’t think that’s necessarily what I’m trying to do right now. I think all the cultural codes are pretty much totally scrambled at this point. I’d be happy to go out with somebody with a guitar and sing live and enjoy the real authentic or semi-authentic experience of that… but I did enjoy that exploration of the impossibility of cultural production being anything more than plastic — in both the good and bad sense. The Mondo Vanilli album ended up titled IOU Babe.
On April 5, I was on Douglas Rushkoff’s Team Human radio show. We agreed to get the interview transcribed for possible publication somewhere.
I’ve decided that rather than trying to edit a truncated version to pitch to more popular websites, I’m just going to keep it conversational and run it here. Maybe less people will see it, but that’s ok. I get to say what I want.
I’ve added to my own spew as I edited. We hope you enjoyed Part 2