It was around twenty years ago, at the humble Organ Factory venue in Melbourne, that Philip Brophy first exercised his hatred of Billy Joel in a work of art.
Long before digital sampling made such a thing simple, Brophy took Joel's three minute pop hit "Still Rock'n'Roll To Me" and stretched it to an excruciating twenty minutes – looping it, slowing it down, chiselling away at every musical cliché and ideological message in it. Since that night, the song has never been the same for me.
The insufferable Joel is still high on Brophy's hit list, judging by a segment of the video project Evaporated Music. This time the target song is "We Didn't Start the Fire". Brophy takes the video clip for this track exactly as is, but strips away the music – replacing it with an assortment of ghostly sound effects, matched to the action and edited with razor-sharp precision.
The result is truly uncanny, and infectiously hilarious: the now utterly discombobulated video is a surreal parade of strange posturings and disquieting juxtapositions worthy of David Lynch.
And Joel has never looked so ridiculous as when he reaches the big rock-hero moment of overturning the table – his voice at this juncture treated to sound like a robotic Darth Vader.
This is the pattern for all six pieces in Evaporated Music. Its other Top 40 victims are Elton John, Celine Dion, Phil Collins, Gloria Estefan and Mariah Carey. One gasps at the audacity of Brophy's flagrant copyright infringement – something he also started doing back in the '80s, in striking videos and installations such as Ads and Club Video.
By keeping the image and replacing the soundtrack whole, Brophy re-invents what the trigger-happy artists and philosophers of the Situationist movement pioneered in the 1950s and '60s: what they called détournement, "diverting" a cultural object from its original purpose by changing one element in it.
The Situationists loved to change the dialogue balloons in comic strips and re-dub martial arts movies in order to make a pointed political critique. Brophy prefers to move beyond such didacticism and plunges us instead into a sensorial, sonic world of groans, flutters, explosions, rattles and hums.
Everything ends up looking deathly, sinister, inhuman: Elton John croaks like a horror-movie apparition, a perverse figure indeed as young things flit around him; Phil Collins emotes unconvincingly in a vacuum, no longer able to imbue the rush of glossy images with any standard meaning or ersatz emotion.
The music has evaporated, and all we are left with are the tawdry remains of pop myths. But deconstruction has never been so energetic, or so much fun.
Evaporated Music is a series that Brophy has continually extended and revised in the years since this piece has written. See here for details.
© Adrian Martin January 2004