Poetics of Pop: The Titles of Things (1982)

Introduction: I commissioned this text as part of a thirty-minute audiovisual piece titled Poetics of Pop, presented at the Clifton Hill Community Music Centre on 6 October 1982: a combination of pre-recorded voice (Vikki’s own), music (by Philip Jackson and Melissa Webb) and slide images (assembled and constructed by me). The images were frame grabs from mainly classic-era Hollywood movies (rephotographed off a TV set with oversaturated colours) overlaid with various titles of films, songs, TV shows and music bands, as well as related catch- phrases (typed onto the screen in the video editing suite at Melbourne State College, where I worked at the time). The ‘poetics’ of the title was meant to result from this interplay of text and image. The only part of this collaborative work that survives today, beyond some outtake slides, is Vikki’s handwritten text, here (beyond basic corrections) integrally reproduced and published for the first time. Intriguingly, I see in retrospect that, while I intended the piece to be essentially celebratory of the pop culture’s permutational and associative powers (a theme of early 1980s artistic culture in Melbourne and elsewhere), Vikki (scarcely twenty years old) took the theme of the titles in popular culture in a more critical direction – as befits the spirit of often fierce critique informing virtually all her writing on the arts, culture and politics. – Adrian Martin, November 2012


Picture this: The Sale of the Century is being televised in the lounge rooms of many a home tonight – cultural conversations about art, films and music are competing in a whirlpool of titles, catchphrases, references and puns, exchanged and consumed as shorthand notes of ideas. Whole evenings are being absorbed in reminiscences of children’s TV programs, favourite records and ‘memorable’ films, without any extension of description or content – a chain reaction of name-dropping and brain-scanning to feed the discussion. Through sheer economy of expression, titles are an escape from lengthy debates that may infringe too dangerously on our own egos – there are too many parcels of visual activity presented to us before intellectualisation arrives.

This ordering and reducing of the visual into a more seemingly tangible system of resources is itself a paradox. The imagination is as open as a filing cabinet for a multitude of captions and labels that all strive to locate and condense the visual image, even further than illustration allows. The search for a more specific mode of enunciating the work becomes self-defeating, as we are seduced and fall prey to the world of the arbitrary.

Language’s insatiable desire to solidify and freeze-frame the transitional medium of the visual ignores the laws of equivocation and semantics that are characterised in the work itself. Rather, the title as a commodity assumes a utilitarianism that assigns itself to interchangeability with other titles, the swapping of meanings and anecdotes both related and unrelated to the work itself. The motivation of the title, whose procreation is often quite different from the genesis that spawned the work itself, is to conceptualise; hence, by its very nature, it is ephemeral. The work is becomes lost due to the omnipresence of the title, which amalgamates itself with other titles to become signposts towards history, art, politics, etc. – as well as humanist considerations outside the more objectively conscious framework.

While the title is inseparable from and supportive of the work, the illusion that it is the ‘property’ of the artist is diminished as it becomes parent to a fantasyland that will ‘live’ again in a new context and time – a space where it is transferred to a future to be lived, rather than a past which has been lived. In the title, we feel connections with not only the past, but also the futures that did not materialise, and for the other variations on the present that we suspect run parallel to the one we already live in.

So what of this edifice of fiction and superlative that poses itself as authoritative over our interpretations? Pop immediately undermines the tradition of categorising the work and giving it a status via titling. It displaces the title into multifaceted levels of reading – irony and metaphor unashamedly strained to their wildest extremes, in order to attain the ultimate senses of clarity and ambivalence that are desired as prerequisites for experiencing the work.

We are confronted with imaginary spatial-temporal landscapes that, like the conventional establishing shot, attempt to locate our point of initial journey into the vast area of scenes and situations. Hence a whole history of titles whose concern is with orientation: The Other Side of Midnight (1977), ‘Morning Side of the Mountain’, The Covered Wagon (1923), Written on the Wind (1956), Forbidden Paradise (1924), A Place in the Sun (1951), Edge of the City (1957), ‘Edge of Reality’, ‘West of the Wall’ … The idea that, by titling a work, we are sensitised in our responses to it, because we are sharing the same cherished experience as its creator.

Then there are those titles that make direct reference to time as ‘eras’ of the past, appealing to our sense of memory and recall, inviting us to ‘cast our minds back if we can’ to identifiable moments in our own personal history, that the work will perhaps use as a tool for selling itself: a warm, deep voice utters An Affair to Remember (1957), A Night to Remember (1958), ‘Yesterday When I Was Young’, The Beatles’ eternal ‘Yesterday’, It Happened One Night (1934), Days of Wine and Roses (1962), ‘Those were the days, my friend, we thought they’d never end’ … Similarly, the future becomes laden with sentimental romanticism: Brave New World, And Now Tomorrow (1944), Make Way for Tomorrow (1937), Tomorrow is Forever (1946), Design for Living (1933), ‘All Tomorrow’s Parties’ … Happy ever after in stories of past and future, declarations of: It’s a wonderful life! – attempting to encourage a certain type of spirit and enthusiasm about the work. Whether the title turns out positive or negative, as a result of looking at the work which it speaks on behalf of, is irrelevant; the title still functions as a promotion of its emotionalism.

The quotidian of emotionalism, however, is more ambivalent; more acceptable and open to interpretation due to its intimate link with the familiarisation of speech. ‘A kiss is just a kiss’, in its matter-of-fact treatment of the subject it refers to, implies a whole history that confounds itself over the quote’s point of origin: the old question of where have I heard that line before? ‘A kiss is just a kiss’, of course, directly attaches itself to the memory of the theme of romance o a number of films, but specifically to the song ‘As Time Goes By’ in Casablanca – further titles which are themselves saturated in emotional sensationalism and romantic notions of the exotic land where our imaginary lovers will tragically meet. The image of the perfect screen couple Bogart and Bacall (or Bergman) as manifestations of the nostalgic duo who said it all in a kiss on screen and a magical lyric. The moment when lovers all over the world supposedly turn to each other and, in that look, say ‘They’re playing our song’. So the image of Boyer and de Havilland in Hold Back the Dawn (1941) is one of direct association with the quotation that, in one way or another, will help ‘sell’ their screen performance. In the same way, it will help sell the perfume in a commercial, because it will reinforce the appeal of sophistication and glamour in the product inherent in the quotation.

The quintessential Beatles song ‘She Loves You’ operates in a similar fashion. Because it uses words emphasise the familiar and the general – what kind of love? Who is she? What is ‘she’ like? – its conceit is meaningless, whereas its actuality is a kind of ironic density, the suggestion that callow philosophising is banal by its very literalness. ‘Come On Eileen’ – the new Dexys Midnight Runners song title sophisticates this even further, by making the gesture of quoting directly from an archetypal folk song colloquialism (‘c’mon’). The popular culture to which ‘Come On Eileen’ is presenting itself converts it into a lingo catchphrasing that can further be equated with the fashion that embodies it – that of denim overalls. Hence, a trend toward simulated conceptions of the band’s own image, its style of music and the lyrical content. We warm to the proposition of wanting a girl who is homely, sweet and easily wooed; so the title works on a sympathetic attitude toward the writer or singer. And for those who will read into it what they will, it’s all there: Eileen was Johnny Ray’s first and foremost groupie, a clever reference to the lead singer’s personal hero.

Punning and cynicism are things which can be seen as peculiar to many forms of popular culture that see themselves as rewriting and judging the history they draw upon via titles. Send-ups and the satirical nature of many a title employed by the avant-garde as devices for commentary are fairly contemporaneous with Modern Art. ‘We Are Showroom Dummies’ is applicable to a long line of glittering, canonised images of performance, and the star system in general, as with the Ziegfield Follies – a network of traditional Hollywood and cabaret symbolism that exists in the past as naïve representations of wealth, entertainment and pleasure. ‘We Are Showroom Dummies’ takes the oppositional approach of denoting political manipulation and the questioning of the whole star system structure as conformist. Kraftwerk’s song title carries these connotations even further, because we relate to their own particular image of documenting culture and media in machine-like fashion – man as anonymous and depersonalised in the face of technology, and a future that is forever closing in on us. The title condenses a whole history of static images concerning voyeurism and pose where, for Kraftwerk, commercialism and not classicism is the enemy. By making a direct, punning reference to themselves in the title ‘We Are Showroom Dummies’, Kraftwerk present themselves as The Spectacle, immersed in their own technology. There is no explanation of need for this complex of audiovisual machinery; only a simple statement that points the finger – ‘They made us do it’.

The pluralism of Pop’s message becomes contradictory because it rebounds on a phenomenon which could be directly associated with the image of the Now or, in particular, the 1980s as opposed to the ‘Me’ generation of the ‘70s and the ‘We’ generation of the ‘60s. Like those titles which take it upon themselves to deny their own history and any contemplation of the future – The Last Picture Show (1971), The Last Man on Earth (1964), The Last Drive-In Movie Show (Daddy Cool’s 1973 live album) – rock and pop culture, through its titles, has proposed to recreate nostalgia all over again, interpreting the image for a new hierarchy of consumption: the romanticism of the present, the Now world of speed and thrills, extensively borrowing from literature and films and converting it into a mythology for the younger generation. Even the word rock suggests something historical rather than aesthetic.

The marriage of rock and film gave birth to a list of titles which capitulated the so-called spirit of rock, its urgency and laxity: Wild in the Streets (1968), Easy Rider (1969), Rock Around the Clock (1956) … Their catchcry was a reassurance of the mutual empathy between peers and lifestyle. ‘The Rolling Stones’ as a title was a monumental emblem of a youth culture that wants to be in a comfortable flux between speed and sedation.

With psychedelia, a whole new, coded system of labelling popularised itself around the psychotic state – a totally autonomous language in which metaphor was no longer adequate. In the psychedelic or surreal title, the arbitrary was given added status, challenging the notion of the found-art object or work, and divorcing it from any kind of familiarity. Strawberry Alarm Clock, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, Soft Machine, Horse Over Tea Kettle (Robert Breer, 1962), Scorpio Rising (1963), The Peanut Butter Conspiracy, Chrome and Hot Leather (1971), Black Fungus (Michael Lee, 1971), Trout Mask Replica, Curved Air, Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968) – a confusion of terms that would imply a drug-induced state of awareness that segregated practitioners from ‘straights’.

The psychedelic title made claims to a whole series of lost interpretations that the conventional label/title could not. The heaviness and self-centredness of the drug effect allowed a multitude of realisations – the distance between mental orderings of the world seemed immense – and so the titles functioned as a connection to this underworld of super-realism. The title marked an escape route from logical understanding of the work, and became absorbed in its own possible connotations. The Doors as a title encompassed a whole range of these escape routes, both literally and metaphorically – and also as an authoritative voice, as it was derived from the psychedelic mentor Aldous Huxley (his 1954 book The Doors of Perception). The play with metaphor was fun, it could be witty: ? and the Mysterians, Horror Asparagus Stories By The Driving Stupid, The Leathercoated Minds … Connotations of simple excess, free from monotony, with pretentiousness thrown in for decoration – the fictional possibilities were endless. It was a time in popular culture when Absurdism implied some sort of strange profundity.

The Absurd is also inherent in the irony of the myth which states that captions speak some sort of truth applicable to mankind in general, reeking of pithiness: No Sad Songs For Me (1950), ‘Something’s Gotta Give’, ‘You Can’t Argue With Love’, ‘Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough’ – utterances and summations of situations as fables. The title becomes the punchline that declares ‘I’ve had enough!’, as a different kind of tension that will allow a new situation to emerge after or during the process whereby the work reveals itself – and, because of this tangibility, they become useful as captions for just about anything. Their generality only becomes effective in direct association with the image; the title is dependent on it for a stimulus of meaning; and both title and image are open and vulnerable to producing bitter irony.

The narrative title can have the same or similar power, but it is more concerned with condensing a story into a campaign for the work as a mystery or adventure. The narrative film attempts to mimic itself in the title, as sole narrator. It does a successful job if it sounds like poetry – an archaic feel reinforced by the literary reference of telling tales. Hence a whole imaginary world of legends, mysteries and intrigues: The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934/1956), The Most Dangerous Game (1932), They Made Me a Criminal (1939), and the endless The Story of … – which all pertain to a type of novelistic fiction which implies that there is a plot to be unravelled, to be gripped by and studied, as the succession of images build themselves into drama.

And that drama usually manifests itself in what could be loosely described as a Film Noir representation of mystery – the myth-ridden dark corners of the city where Love meets Death meets Intrigue, within the black-and-white screen of eternal street poetics, romantic notions of corruption and daring usually tinged with melancholia: Crime in the Streets (1956), Undercover Man (1949), Walk on the Wild Side (1962), Scarlet Street (1945), The Big Sleep (1946), A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), Dragnet (1954) … Comic-book representations of realism and suspense, obsessions with the mystique of darkness and the night, alluding to a pitiless vision of consequences both romantic and creepy.

Night has a Thousand Eyes (1948), Dead of Night (1945), ‘Here Comes the Night’, History is Made at Night (1937), ‘Let’s Spend the Night Together’, Journey Out of Darkness (1967): these images of the night conjure a certain kind of night that happened in the past, or is a fairly eternal representation of a familiar darkness that spawns murder, or some other plot device. So we could say that they function as auxiliary to the narrative structure they accompany.

It is the sophisticated pop title which draws on a more aesthetic heritage of imagery associated with the photograph’s own heritage. So ‘Station to Station’ can allude to the familiarity of the city and the notions of speed and locomotion, in a cold but evocative commentary on the rhythm of everyday life. David Bowie can use the title in a more opportunistic sense because it relates to his own motives in creating news styles that move like static images between the ‘stations of time’. He can use it as a deflected quotation from the tradition of European art films that, somehow, relate and refer back to the filmic, ‘translated’ quality of his music. As a Pop stylist, Bowie used titles to evoke a certain type of decadence – ‘Ashes to Ashes’ – involving disintegration and synthetic heroes. ‘Station to Station’ can also be seen as a link between Western decadence and the European view of art and tragedy – a Film Noir cross-reference to Berlin and the low-life which is seen as perverse sophistication and glamour. The Trans-Europ- Express (1967) of moral degradation and bright lights captured by Polaroid photos: ‘Station to Station’ says it all.

The intrigue of Berlin filters its way through many a title: Slums of Berlin (1925), Dresden War Crimes (aka Bombs Over Dresden), Berlin Express (1948), Lou Reed’s Berlin (which isn’t about Berlin at all), and then Joy Division, Spandau Ballet and Bauhaus, who use the European image as gimmickry and as reference to the authority of an external culture whose status rests on a myth of the unapproachable, the absolute difference of race and taste.

These titles are fixed to their object as artefacts that pretend to be whole works that cannot be disassembled in their reading – their conceptual ties are too closely woven, too precious to be played with in a jovial fashion. So, whether or not Bowie uses ‘Look Back in Anger’ as a song title without contemplating its prior usage as the title of John Osborne’s 1956 play adds desire to the song, which becomes loaded with the emotional clichés of knowing its own history and then rejecting it. Here the Artist steps in and makes his claims on passion, conviction and artistic license to use gestures toward other works with a view to creating new expression – meanings which he wants to present to his fans as original, keeping in line with his own star image.

The caption (as distinct from the title) often ignores this, playing games with other people’s egos and images. Gossip fanzines are a goldmine of captions and quotations that become in-jokes for the personal, little world of the fan and his or her idol. Titling in inverted and turns in on itself after shifts in the work’s reading take place. ‘On the edge’, ‘In cars’ and ‘At what stage did you enter this film?’ as captions on [Poetics of Pop’s slide] images rely, to some extent, on the knowledge of idioms used within the film Angel Face (Otto Preminger, 1953). So that they can be twisted around in black comedy fashion. So that we can laugh at Robert Mitchum and Jean Simmons themselves, as actors who are exposed as pawns for a contrived scene that Preminger has set up. The title Angel Face may well be purely descriptive – of the fact that this film will be about an idealised dream-woman, an icon that Simmons will embody as a symbol for the film to revolve around. But, more likely, there are other permutations of Angel Face – which will cynically expose itself as a façade, a game played with seduction and fetish that will lead into a deeper plot involving other characters.

And, for the cinephile, the title will serve as sticker to seal a film which he will mark ‘important’ in the whole history of cinema: the title, because of its ironic tonings, will assume a status of specialised nature, monumental and eternal; it will always be put on a particular pedestal allotted especially for that purpose. And when it is time to replicate it in petty conversation, it will be taken down, dusted, out to use and then put back up again – perhaps not even on the same pedestal, perhaps even forgotten.


© Estate of Vikki Riley 1982