Thåström/Imperiet/Ebba Grön and the Kitsch of Decadence

by on Oct.04, 2010

Here’s an interesting interview form 1999 with Joakim Thåström, somebody I think anybody who grew up in Sweden in the late 70s and 80s must have opinions about. The interview also includes a lot of interesting clips from throughout the years.

At first he was in a seminal punk group called Ebba Grön.

Then he was in Imperiet (“The Empire,” derived from Star Wars), a group I loved and which had huge influence on my own aesthetics. In fact when I first started writing poetry it was re-writes of Imperiet songs. Their music melds synth-pop, post-punk rock, left-wing politics and (paradoxically) Decadent poetry (I now realize largely influenced by the poet Bruno K. Öijer). This is also when Thåström became incredibly theatrical with his body: pale, starved and spasmodic, it his body became a kind of protest against the natural-obsessed welfare state; a body possessed by media. His clothing too became very expressionistic, bringing together Russian army wear with cabaret decadence.

I’m still re-writing this song (or at least my initial experience of the song):

That group broke up in the late 80s. Then he turned against the Decadence and melodrama of Imperiet with a kind of Nine-inch-nail group called Peace, Love and Pitbulls (which apparently Marilyn Manson adores). The key here being that the lyrics became much less literary, even self-consciously anti-literary, and moves away from the beautiful decadent melodrama and melancholy of a lot of Imperiet’s songs. It is as if the literary was kitsch, sickening, had to be cast off in order to return to a kind of pure, original energy.

[Though, to contradict myself, it should be noted that obviously his body is still theatrical at this point. But the very metaphor “I’m a caveman” seems to be wish to move away from decadence and literariness, something that can also be seen in the use of repetends.]

Well I can just cut this short and direct you to this Wikipedia entry.

Anyway, what’s interesting about this interview is the way he expresses such incredible nostalgia for his punk years, something that seems in line with his recent album that included a super-nostalgic piece called “The Haters” about his punk years; the song is so nostalgic for a purity of origin that it’s about Ebba Grön before Ebba Grön had its famous name, when they were called The Haters. The nostalgia for the pre-published, the purity of pre-published (Connection to poetry: people talking about “unpublishable poetry” or “unreadable books”). There’s something about the dyi aspect of punk, something about its us-vs-them politics that allow for this kind of nostalgia for pure origins.

This longing seems to be a longing for a kind of pre-thinking purity, which is expressed in his utterly inarticulate responses. He keeps emphasizing that it “just happened.” And “it’s hard to beat the first kick… We were just throwing ourselves into the ocean.. It was such a power… The first kick… you can’t experience that as strongly again.” It also seems to have to do with community; with Ebba Grön he was part of a band, with Imperiet he was a “pop star.”

Meanwhile, he says he regrets all of Imperiet’s records! Seems to want them struck from the books. This seems very typical in some ways. I remember even toward the end there was a backlash against Imperiet – though perhaps more the first solo album which was so synthy, so poetic (and included rewrites of Bulgakov’s “The Master and Margarita”). In the interview, he also seem to associate this period with himself become a “figure”, divorced from his true self, even as he realizes that all art does this. But I think this is pretty typical that you can’t feel nostalgic about decadence. That it’s something to even be ashamed of. This is perhaps also typical of synth-pop: the shitty pseudo sounds of the crappy machine.

I think this anxiety about art-making – that you become a “figure” removed from society, that you become narcissistic, that you make shit, kitsch – is very instructive. It may have something to do with why, as Aase Berg wrote in a recent essay, the metaphor has become kitsch. This has something to do with the turn to “the everyday” that Karla Kelsey describes in a new review about Brian Henry’s new book on Constant Critic.

There’s also something interesting to me about the way politics work in Thåström’s career. In Ebba Grön’s lyrics, the politics are much more overt, but also strangely, retrospecticely, in line with the welfare state, while in Imperiet’s songs, the politics are ultra-aestheticized to the point that it’s hard to say if the imagery is about politics or the politics is a kind of metaphor. Atrocity kitsch.


One more semi-interesting note: he seems to have returned to a kind of decadent literariness a few years ago, briefly, as a member of the group Sällskapet. That is only by not recording under his name:

It’s possible that I’ve totally oversimplified Thåström’s career. Maybe I’m shocked by his wholesale rejection of Imperiet. And yet it makes total sense. The metaphor/kitsch/Decadence must be rejected, and nostalgia/purity/impossibility must be worshipped even if it means deleting a whole decade of revolutionary material from your body of work. This is how culture maintains its hygiene, purveys its chocolate laxative, grooms its art without art.

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