Gustavus Stadler

Gustavus Stadler teaches English at Haverford College and is author of Troubling Minds: The Cultural Politics of Genius in the US, 1840-1890 (Minnesota, 2006). He edited a special issue of Social Text on "The Politics of Recorded Sound" and is Co-Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Popular Music Studies.



"Aural Drag: Warhol as Pop Listener"

This paper is from a larger project on Warhol and anachronism which examines his work’s engagement with, and critique of, narratives of media history. Many observers have noted the degree to which Warhol’s downtown New York studio, the Factory, was permeated by recorded sound, even before the artist’s explicit foray into the rock world with the Velvet Underground.

In this talk I look at the pop music that provided the soundscape of the Factory in the mid-sixties, paying particularly close attention to novelty and one-hit wonder songs that he and others retrospectively associated with this dynamic era in his career. I suggest that we see in Warhol’s attraction to these songs a queerly couched resistance (akin to what Elizabeth Freeman has recently called “temporal drag”) to rapidly developing aesthetics in rock recording which favored the isolation of particular instruments, voices, and effects. The songs Warhol fixated on derived from the tradition generally associated with Phil Spector productions, the “Back to Mono” aesthetic that rejected the separation of tracks and channels for a de-atomized aural effect often (and limitingly) dubbed the “wall of sound.”

I argue that this mass of undifferentiated sounds constitutes an aural version of the “mass subject” that critics like Hal Foster and Jonathan Flatley have identified as a constitutive element in Warhol’s celebrity and disaster portraits of this time. The attraction of the blurry sound of these records arises from the way that sound’s texture embodies the sense that the songs are being listened to repeatedly, on a mass scale, rather than the dominant trends emphasizing detail and private headphone listening.