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A LAND THAT I’VE DREAMED OF 

BILL ORCUTT, PETER THIEL, & READING AMERICAN HISTORY


AN ESSAY BY JOE BUCCIERO






Bill Orcutt, 2016






I.

AMERICANS






The guitarist Bill Orcutt released two LPs this summer. One of them, self-titled, follows the same blueprint as previous records like 2013’s A History of Every One: it features Orcutt, solo, interpolating well-known American songs on a four-string guitar (electric this time, not acoustic, and with a few original compositions added in). As usual, he takes a fair amount of creative license: his versions are marked by scattered bursts of notes that often disrupt the recognizable melodies, suggesting James “Blood” Ulmer as readily as Irving Berlin. Yet while Orcutt’s covers aren’t entirely faithful, here, more than ever, they imply reverence for the American popular music tradition. That is, the compositional and emotional foundations of tracks like “White Christmas” and “When You Wish Upon a Star” hold firm, such that the record sort of comes across like a sincere, albeit idiosyncratic celebration of its historical source material.



 





But in this case comparative accessibility doesn’t necessarily equal increased reverence for tradition, a dissonance implied by Orcutt’s other June release. This second album was recorded with Cracked, an open-source program Orcutt wrote that allows users to turn their computers into noise machines. (Orcutt has been experimenting with computer music since 1998’s Let’s Build a Pussy by his former band Harry Pussy, and has worked as a software engineer in Silicon Valley since around the same time.) On the new LP, two side-length tracks offer unending cascades of sharp digital pitches, like a Super Mario game scored by Merzbow. Its title, like the music, upends Bill Orcutt’s simplicity and plain American-ness, inviting a host of different associations and interpretations: An Account of the Crimes of Peter Thiel and His Subsequent Arrest, Trial, and Execution. The invocation of Peter Thiel isn’t random: Orcutt and the Silicon Valley libertarian are in (indirect) dialogue outside of Orcutt’s jokey album title. Namely, they have both demonstrated a mutual interest in how and why American history is written, its traditions formed, its culture defined through their respective bodies of work and public statements.

The American thinker Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, with slight condemnation, “Our age is retrospective.” Half a century later, in The Making of Americans (1925), Gertrude Stein pointed out that the American tradition “has taken scarcely sixty years to create.” Having rebelled against one culture and colonized another, early Americans were eager to have a story to tell, a history of their own.1 The 19th and 20th centuries saw cultural production boom alongside a need to historicize the present, to build monuments to moments and figures (political or folkloric) that seemed to best represent American culture and progress. What I want to consider here is how Orcutt and Thiel—both based in the Bay Area, the center of 21st-century American “progress”—confront or exploit the tendencies described by Emerson and Stein, to look back (perhaps haphazardly), tendencies sown into the American grain?




II.

FLYING CARS




Judy Garland as Dorothy Gale, 1939

“Over the Rainbow” (1939), composed by Harold Arlen with lyrics by Yip Harburg, describes a place where “there isn’t any trouble,” as Dorothy Gale says in its preamble. It’s a place where dreams come true, but also one that Dorothy, in Dust Bowl-era Kansas, has only ever “heard of.” How could there be a place without trouble? Maybe there can’t, for when she’s transported over the rainbow moments later Dorothy encounters a wonderful, technicolor land that’s nevertheless mired in… trouble. Maybe, simply, Kansas—the America right in front of her—could be that utopia: “There’s no place like home.” The enduring popularity of “Over the Rainbow” outside its original context of The Wizard of Oz underlines the allure of utopian imagery in the American tradition. Harburg, later blacklisted, maybe envisioned a socialist utopia in the wake of the New Deal, but the song resonates more generally with the American Dream, the promise of personal and familial progress. “Why, then oh why, can’t I?” 

The American Dream has long since proven itself to be an exclusionary myth, yet Peter Thiel has been a vocal proponent of it in the 21st century. Thiel’s version of the Dream reflects his early reading habits: he grew up on a diet of science-fiction and libertarian literature like Ayn Rand, influences that have informed his business, cultural, and political initiatives ever since and helped him believe in the United States as a site for “capitalist utopia.” For him, there’s “no place” like home, so long as “home” gets thrust into the future. His venture capital firm Founders Fund invests in “revolutionary technology”; they recently released a podcast called “Anatomy of Next: Utopia”; their slogan is “We wanted flying cars, instead we get 140 characters.” Why help humans communicate when we could send them to space, Thiel wonders. “You have dizzying change,” he has said of the tech landscape, “where there’s no progress.”2
As evidenced again, in part, by his allusions to old sci-fi novels, Thiel’s ideas are shaped by a sense of nostalgia, an idealization of childhood (hence, too, why he’s so intent on trying to prolong his life). Recalling when he was a boy during a speech at the Republican National Convention in July 2016, he said, “The future felt limitless… But today our government is broken… it would be kind to say that government software works poorly, because much of the time it doesn’t work at all.” And while he’s often reticent to talk about his personal life, he was quick to bring up how his parents, German immigrants, achieved the Dream. If the connections between his and Donald Trump’s worldviews hadn’t already, they crystallized as Thiel spoke; it became clear that his reliance on libertarianism and nostalgia—distrust of institutions, selective historicizing—aligned with the diffuse #MAGA rallying cry.

“When Donald Trump asks us to Make America Great Again,” Thiel said near the end of his speech, “he’s not suggesting a return to the past, he’s running to lead us back to that bright future.” Yet that future is shaped by a dedication to the “past,” a reimagining of “what really is” to ensure the primacy of the ruling class. Since his time at Stanford in the 1980s, Thiel has ardently fought in culture wars, opposing for instance his university’s desire to open up their western literary canon. Thiel’s ideas have resurfaced in not only political discourse but also Silicon Valley lately, where Google fired James Damore for his well-publicized misogynistic screed about tech-industry hiring practices. For Damore and Thiel, contemporary institutions suppress the individual freedom that capitalism ought to provide; marginalized people only get in the way, becoming scapegoats as they do under fascism. (One thinks of the Italian fascists, who idolized their pure, powerful ancient Roman “ancestors” and promoted Futurist artwork depicting speedy utopias.) Describing contemporary fascists like Richard Spencer, Angela Nagle summed it up: “They spoke the language of the end of history and restarting history again.”

Thiel idealizes (and restarts) the 1920s, a time he views as the golden age of capitalism. In “The Education of a Libertarian” (2009), he wrote, “The 1920s were the last decade in American history during which one could be genuinely optimistic about politics. Since 1920, the vast increase in welfare beneficiaries and the extension of the franchise to women—two constituencies that are notoriously tough for libertarians—have rendered the notion of ‘capitalist democracy’ into an oxymoron.” But as capital flowed unchecked and America shut itself off, it was “the height of black disenfranchisement, segregation and lynching,” to quote Eric Foner, and the seeds of the Great Depression and World War II were planted.





Peter Thiel, 2016



Thiel’s outmoded belief in the good of capital and its attendant power structures requires revisionist history and, as with fascist regimes last century, imagining equality as a threat. “When I was a kid,” said Thiel later in the RNC speech, “the great debate was about how to defeat the Soviet Union—and we won! Now we are told that the great debate is about who gets to use which bathroom. This is a distraction from our real problems. Who cares?” In the wake of Charlottesville, Mychal Denzel Smith diagnosed white supremacists of all stripes with “historical amnesia”:

False equivalence is a tool, not an accident of ignorance. It is a choice to focus on [Robert E.] Lee’s reputation as a military tactician and not on what that acumen was put to use for, the same as it is a choice to describe his relationship to the institution of slavery as more nebulous than it actually was… What the torch bearers understand as the reason for making these choices, the same reason they chant “you will not replace us,” is that this form of myth-making is the cornerstone of white masculine identity. In order to continue accepting unchecked white-male power, we all must believe, on some level, in the enduring heroism of white-male villains… White men’s violence must be viewed as protection of core American values, thus making any response to it a threat to a perceived natural order.

Following the Hulk Hogan Gawker lawsuit and his endorsement of Donald Trump, Thiel has luxuriated in his role as the white-male villain, like a character in those sci-fi novels he read—rather, misread—as a boy. Raymond Williams, in “Utopia and Science Fiction” (1978), dissects the motivations for utopian societies in literature in a way that forecasts today’s situation: “Enlarging the bounds of human empire is not only the mastery of nature,” he writes; “it is also, as a social projection, an aggressive, autocratic, imperialist enterprise; the projection of a rising class.” Thiel sees this too, but, misreading, the “empire” excites rather than terrifies him because he’s confident the “rising class” is his own.3





III.

POPULAR SONGS






“Over the Rainbow” is also the penultimate track on Bill Orcutt. While Orcutt’s frenetic tics surface, the recording is clean and he keeps his improvisatory outbursts to a minimum; the ubiquitous melody rings, such that the song retains its identity while still assimilating to his style. Of Bill Orcutt’s 10 tracks, “Over the Rainbow,” previously recorded for a 2012 benefit compilation, best clarifies the extent to which his frenetic playing style is informed by the tics and traits of American popular music. Arlen’s original composition is more turbulent than it might seem, after all, with its looping chorus interrupted by fast, minimalist verses—qualities that could be attributed to Orcutt’s playing as well. And when Orcutt plays it, he absorbs that tradition, leaving space around the parts we recognize before tracing back over with off-kilter add-ons. The relatively bare-bones approach lets us into the song’s formal framework; the approach’s consistency throughout Bill Orcutt helps to then connect dots between the otherwise disparate popular American songs.

Because Orcutt’s music is instrumental, his analysis registers first on this level of form. But most of these songs have lyrics, too, and they all have specific cultural and historical contexts. While Orcutt’s guitar appears to tie them together in some grand American tradition, the unvoiced content troubles a sense of linearity or uniformity. What do we know about these songs that are so central to our culture?

“I was trying to avoid quality,” said Orcutt of his approach to song selection in 2013. “I was just trying to come up with the most representative set of songs I could: holiday songs, marches, labor songs, protest songs, songs about American history, songs from movies and TV, religious songs.” Without lyrics the songs lose their original, stated content and become raw musical material—melodies we recognize but don’t necessarily think about. Yet Orcutt encourages us to think: he plays as though he’s pulling notes from the ground, re-assembling the tunes in a living context. “Nearer My God To Thee,” a 19th-century hymn by Sarah Flower Adams, tells the story of Jacob’s ladder, and exists in the American consciousness in part because it’s supposedly the last thing the band on the Titanic played before the ship sunk. The soundtrack to one of America’s most-told stories, the song, through Orcutt’s historical lens, is exposed to multiple contexts, multiple histories, through and beyond James Cameron’s Titanic (1997). It’s at least interesting, too, that both Jacob’s ladder and the Titanic are transportation vessels with semi-utopian destinations at the heart of the “American tradition”—heaven and, well, America.

Popular songs, as immediate and resonant as they often are, affect our experience of history and can therefore either prop up or distort it; history can do the same to songs, and Orcutt’s project is powerful because it plainly broaches the dynamics involved in these processes. In this regard, Bill Orcutt is the artist’s most successful album yet. Where A New Way to Pay Old Debts (2009) and Way Down South (2010) took stylistic and emotional cues from black music, namely the blues, sometimes with unclear motivations, Bill Orcutt and other releases since 2013 push against a tradition he’s necessarily a part of: white supremacy in American music. He has covered “Zip Coon,” for instance, a song that most recognize as an ice cream truck jingle, or as “Do Your Ears Hang Low,” but has its origins in 19th-century minstrel shows, as the pejorative title implies. Especially when dealing with minstrel songs like this one, Orcutt risks crossing a line from historical interrogation to spectacular provocation; even playing the song at all, especially as a white man, risks empowering its message and history.





Bill Orcutt, 2017



Yet Orcutt’s obstinate arrangements and prickly sense of humor suggest a drive to undermine conventional white-music traditions, While his interventions have come after, and from a privileged viewpoint compared to, those by Julius Eastman, Butch Morris, members of the AACM, and others, Orcutt handles sensitive material in a way that emphasizes the clumsy construction of its place in “American tradition.” These songs are pawns of power, in many forms, and Orcutt demonstrates what makes them enduring while also highlighting their flexibility, even their flimsiness, especially at a time when, as he said in 2013, “Blackface itself went out of style, but not much else has changed." Different framing doesn’t constitute progress (despite the ideals of tech-industry disrupters), and the fragility of Orcutt’s interpolations allows for their deconstruction and evolution over time. His version of the “Star Spangled Banner,” Bill Orcutt’s final track, certainly has taken on a new character since I first drafted this article, with the song at the center of debates since the start of the National Football League season.

It’s important that these songs exist in the American psyche via commercial contexts. When something is packaged well (with ice cream, a catchy melody), we accept it at face value, no matter its history; we tie it to our identities and fight to keep it. Music, capital, and white supremacy have been tangled throughout American history. “Our idea of the blues is really narrow,” Orcutt once explained, “formed by record companies and concert promoters and folklorists and musicologists from the ’20s.” Many of the songs he plays are the aural equivalent of those soft, kitschy Confederate statues that have recently been the subject of much debate. These are ephemeral materializations of “our” “culture, thought to be ingrained in “our” history, but are ultimately props to delineate that exclusive “our.” By subtly distorting these popular American songs, Orcutt makes us question their origins and permanence.

An Account…, Orcutt’s computer-music album, addresses the relationship between music and power from a different angle. In his work, Orcutt has never so directly confronted his position as a Silicon Valley laborer than with this mention of Peter Thiel, igniter of today’s culture wars in the area. Orcutt was “thinking about [Thiel] and civil unrest” when he made the album; with this in mind, the overwhelming volume and length of its two tracks, crudely digital as they are, mirrors the overwhelming power and presence of the tools used to create them—their reliance on unchallenged capitalism, and their surrounding culture’s historical myopia. While Account and Bill Orcuttsound very different, they both assemble uniform musical material with copious room for silence and error to suggest that the dominant uses and narratives proffered by those in power are messy and subject to change.

Thiel is “a right-wing tech billionaire best known for founding Paypal. One of his obsessions is survivalism…” says Orcutt. “[He] keeps his private jet ready to go so he can make a quick escape when the ebola breaks out or the working classes rise up.” Thiel’s future—one in which flying cars matter, not what can be communicated in 140 characters—is one that dissuades discussion and organizing; it sees technology as an adjoint of capital, not as something that can help those in need. But, as radical movements and other worthy causes continue to spread online, it’s clear that when addressed on a more personal, elemental level, “tech” can spur positive change, and upset the traditions written from above.




IV.

A NEW DEAL






In The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America (2017), Richard Rothstein writes: “We like to think of American history as a continuous march of progress toward greater freedom, greater equality, and greater justice. But sometimes we move backward, dramatically so.” The last year in geopolitics has demonstrated a general, visible backward shift, the likes of which we’ve never seen. These setbacks have been swept under the rug, historically speaking, and thereby continue to bolster racial inequality and, now, extreme nationalist fervor. There are standing monuments, some of them physical statues and some of them written into policy, not just to Confederate generals but also to figures who have upheld the Confederacy’s values after the Civil War. Even Franklin D. Roosevelt and his New Deal promoted segregation, as Rothstein notes.









The historical amnesia and utopian thinking that have long marked white American thinking—and are now increasingly toxic and mainstream—use perceived triumphs in the past for modeling the future in a way that ignores the present and the way history lives inside it. Gertrude Stein wrote fluidly about history, with the weight of our genealogy as well as future bearing upon it, doing so through both content and form (the latter of which is uniquely abetted by heavy use of the present participle). Bill Orcutt, playing old songs not as though they’re monuments but rather pieces of information meant to be re-read and -interpreted, to be understood but continually fucked-with, to be engaged with emotion but also humor, follows in Stein’s tradition: in the American grain yet working to re-sow it. Eyes and ears open, can we envision futures and traditions less beholden to “progress,” more to regeneration within changing fields of time?4





NOTES

1.

By “Americans” here I’m referring to white inhabitants of the United States who emigrated from Europe (or whose ancestors did) and, considering themselves to encompass “Americans,” are responsible for the historical phenomena (myopia, amnesia) I describe in this article.

2.
Bits of information, including this quote, come from The Unwinding (2013) by George Packer, who profiles Thiel among other Americans whose stories illustrate the fallout of neoliberalism.

3.
Right-wing Twitter users have inadvertently stumbled upon enlightened historical conclusions. Geraldo Rivera tweeted, for example, “If #RobertELee is to be erased from history, why not erase #ChristopherColumbus whose arrival ignited genocide of Native Americans?”

4.
Near the end of “Utopia and Science Fiction,” Raymond Williams describes a better utopian model, found in Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia (1974). Le Guin’s novel depicts two worlds, the capitalist Urras and communalist Anarres, in conversation on a non-linear timeline. Anarres is understandably the one that excites Williams: it’s marked by deprivation, and yet, because itsinhabitants prize communication and a willingness to experiment with politics and ways of life, “it is where, within a capitalist dominance, and within a crisis of power and affluence which is also the crisis of war and waste, the utopian impulse now warily, self-questioningly, and setting its own limits, renews itself.”









Joe Bucciero is a writer born in Chicago, based in Brooklyn.
He is the co-author, with Michael Blair, of Colossal Youth (Bloomsbury, 2017).



2017.