80s Pop and Gothic Plague Stages (my last thoughts about Imperiet and Thåström, I promise)

by on Aug.23, 2011

It’s interesting that when I wrote the post about “plague stages,” and quoted PJ Harvey expressing a certain ambivalence about the period in the mid-90s when she went “kabuki” or “drag” or “Joan Crawford on acid,” ie when she was saturated by Art, I thought of an earlier post I had written about the Swedish 80s band Imperiet. In that post I quoted Thåström the lead singer and songwriter as saying he felt embarrassed about everything he’d done in the 80s – ie the decadent synth-cabaret of Imperiet, not the “authentic,” more direct politics of his 70s punk band Ebba Grön (ie “The Haters”, except that by the end of that band, it was pretty Joan Crawford Kabuki as well) – basically because it was too “poetic.” (See previous posts about poetic, kitsch, “excessively beautiful.”)

And certainly his lyrics with Imperiet were incredibly “poetic.” The song “Holländskt Porslin” begins: “Through the rain of your tears/I will send you a letter/ten thousand wild roses/and a song I never wrote.” Wow. Talk about kitsch. It’s like a guidebook in kitsch!

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One of the things that transformed Thåström from more typical punk protest songs protesting against the mistreatment of youth under capitalism/social democracy toward this more decadent lyrical style was – I think – reading Bruno K. Öijer’s decadent/surreal poems. Öijer is kind of pop phenomena in Sweden. He started out writing these wild surrealistic poems in the early 70s, starting to publishing them when he was barely 20 in real Rimbaud-style. (He also became a pop star of sorts in the 80s, performing with a band.)

You can see öijer’s influence on a song like “Teenage Jesus” (which was one of my favorites when I was like 13 yrs old), but you can also see the “poetic kitsch”:

My tears have painted over the whole town
and my heart is a sidewalk
I’ve been an amusement part and a cemetary
I have waited for 2000 years.
He came from the skies an atom-bomb-day
and he wrote an electric white swan.

Teenage Jesus, you’re coming you’re coming…

He was born in pain a winter night
and his heart is a hotel
He opened doors nobody knew existed
He is both a woman and man
He’s taken my virginity for a testube son [?]
He’s guilty of unarmed robbery

Teenage Jesus come to me bla bla

The Streets have never been so long
So full of shitty snow
My mirror life is the torture of gods
Now I’m decorating the tree with ashes and embers.

In many ways this 80s song emblematizes the gothic “plague stages” for me. Not just because Thåström now is apparently embarrassed of these songs, and sees them as a confused/ing fake self, but also for their “excessively beautiful” stylings and because the song is about entering into the kind of plague space where identities become mask-like and intensive (not fake and shallow, but more intensive): He writes an electric swan, he is fucked by “teenage jesus,” he ends by decorating a Christmas tree by burning it down essentially. Violence and feminization/sexualization seems key tropes of a lot of the gothic art/writing that makes up this space of “plague stages.”

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Here’s the opening song, “Rock n’ Roll E Död” (Rock n’ Roll is Dead) from their farewell concert:

[BTW this is from a documentation of the last show by thee actor Peter Stormare – famous from various Cohen Brothers films – whose visage you may be able to spot in the clip. He tried to release the film earlier this year but was blocked by the band.]

If you were an astute reader of my blog posts and an expert on Swedish 80s pop, you might have heard the echoes of this song in my “Poetry is Dead” post. Since such a person probably doesn’t exist, I’ll confess to the reference now.

So this is Imperiet’s farewell concert, and I think they played this song first on maybe all the stops of that tour. The most obvious message is clearly: we’re quitting. Rock n roll is dead. This message is reinforced by the shirts that you see people in the crowd sporting. They say something like “Skönt att ni lägger av” (What a relief that you’re quitting).

But I think there’s a more interesting interpretation that has to do with the gothic “crypt” readings I’ve been up to recently. The first line is “Through my body, an electricity.” Later on he says that his blood has been “pawned.” There is definitely something undead or monstrous about the speaker of the song. Rock n roll is a kind of electricity, a kind of mediumicity that surges through his body, that resurrects – rather than kills – his body. The utter repetitiveness of the song further reinforces this. One might say that “Rock n’ roll” is not “dead” as much as “death” perhaps, or the “corpse language” that Pound tried to rid modern poetry of.

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Thåström’s body always seemed to me a key component of Imperiet: pale, deathy, half naked, heroin-ish (before this was officially make chique in the 90s), tons of mascara around eyes, and, perhaps most importantly, very spazzy and contortive, emitting strange groans. And it’s this body that is saturated by death’s electricity, which turns this body into a “strip-tease” (“ladies, gentlemen…” cue your Plath), turns it spasmodic.

(And turns itself importantly into somewhat feminine: he’s fucked by teenage jesus, his inspiration pours into him in “Rock n Roll is Dead.”)

This might be why after one song on the live album from the 80s, Thåström shouts “tranquilize me” over and over. As if the music had electrified him too much, but also in an admission that his body is mediumized (electricity, tranquilizers).

In his book The Gothic Body, Steven Bruhm writes:

Thus what I am calling the “Gothic body” is that which is put on excessive display, and whose violent, vulnerable immediacy gives both the Delacroix painting and Gothic fiction their beautiful barbarity, their troublesome power.

So when I say that poetry is dead, what I might mean is that poetry is full of this spasmodic death electricity; poetry is like a “mask” (complete with the make-up); poetry puts the body on display; poetry is excessively beautiful.

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I promise this is the last post about Imperiet. I’ve been thinking a lot about them for some time, even buying some of the old records on CD. I guess the reason for this is that in retrospect they were very formative for me. Their poetic kitsch was a big reason I started writing poetry. I didn’t even need to figure out that they had been influenced by poetry – it was “poetic” to me in a way that electrified me into writing poetry. And the way Thåström’s pale body moved spasmodically seemed to me a rejection of the ideology of naturalness which was so pervasive in the Swedish welfare state.

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