The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion


Jon Spencer is a thoroughly postmodern musician. His earlier band, Pussy Galore, infamously deconstructed The Rolling Stones Exile on Main St., and The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion (JSBX) continues the postmodern tradition of borrowing promiscuously and irreverently from the past.

The JSBX has sometimes been criticised for the way in which they use blues music (surely the fictitious "Blues Hammer" in Ghost World is partly a parody of the JSBX?), but is their relation to blues really one of parody and exploitation?

In Postmodernism and Consumer Society, Frederic Jameson distinguishes between parody and pastiche:

Pastiche is, like parody, the imitation of a peculiar or unique style, the wearing of a stylistic mask, speech in a dead language: but it is a neutral practice of such mimicry, without parody's ulterior motive, without the satirical impulse, without laughter, without that still latent feeling that there exists something normal compared to which what is being imitated is rather comic. (1988:16)

The way in which JSBX uses blues music is actually quite genuine and seems to better fit the notion of pastiche. Even when lapsing into full Elvis impersonation (which he does less of these days), Spencer is too serious about his performance and his art to be properly considered parody.

Instead, what the JSBX does is ask what rock 'n' roll would sound like if it jumped straight from blues to punk, avoiding everything in between. In this sense, the JSBX is a much more coherent project than any of the many garage bands that gained popularity around the turn of the millennium. The question, and the JSBX's answer, is very much in keeping with Jameson's somewhat depressing thoughts about postmodern art. Jameson writes:

...contemporary or postmodernist art is going to be about art itself in a new kind of way; even more, it means that one of its essential messages will involve the necessary failure of art and the aesthetic, the failure of the new, the imprisonment in the past. (1988:18)

By removing the styles that appeared chronologically between blues and punk, Spencer opens up a space to do something new. However, this space remains limited; it is bookended and ultimately remains imprisoned by the past.

Audiences too are prisoners of the past, evidenced by the fact that the greatest response was to two songs off Now I Got Worry, an album that is almost old enough to vote. And yet, in a way the new JSBX songs sounds more like old JSBX than ever, further locking us into the cycles of repetition that are almost definitional of the postmodern.

The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion played the Electric Ballroom in Camden on December 3rd, 2012. Blues Explosion!

Previous Next