Soyez Realistes (Be Realistic)

In many ways, Roxette is the rightful heir to the original Swedish pop powerhouse ABBA. They were fiercely proud of their country while being at home on the global stage. Their playlist of hits and singles can run for hours without a song playing twice — and even if one did, you didn’t mind. Moreover, chances are you’d have repeated delightful eureka-moments when you’d recognize a song and go, “oh, this is theirs!”

Like ABBA, everyone knows at least one or two Roxette songs; if Abba had “Dancing Queen”, Roxette had “Listen to Your Heart.” Then you’d have fan favorites like “The Way Old Friends Do” (ABBA) and “June Afternoon” (Roxette). And if you scratch the surface even further you’d get jewels like “Bang-a-Boomerang” (ABBA) and “She’s Got Nothing On (But the Radio)” (Roxette). Even their creative dynamic was similar: while Per Gessle wrote most of Roxette’s songs, it was Marie Fredriksson’s female vocals — both tender and tough — that made them so memorable and gave them so much life.

They were also both historically (dis-)located in politically-contentious times. ABBA’s bouncy pop stuck out like a sore thumb among the earthy, acoustic folk that dominated a decade of militant anti-war and civil rights movements. While Roxette blended in better with the timeless quality of their power ballads and easy rock, they first gained fame in a Europe that was still reeling from the effects of the collapse of the USSR.

But none of this historicity is apparent in their oeuvre; ABBA had derisively been called “escapist” throughout the band’s career. And unlike fellow European-breakthrough peer U2 — who wears its political involvement on its sleeve — you can hardly find any trace of social engagement in Roxette’s songs (a salient contrast to be made at the moment, because as I am writing, my news feed is full of friends who are either excitedly standing in line for U2’s Manila concert, or mourning Marie Fredriksson’s passing, or both).

Indeed, Roxette (and ABBA) does not exactly fit the “art for the masses” mold expected from, and demanded of, works made and appreciated by progressive individuals. Nevertheless, as an activist friend said in tribute to Marie, singers and songs that have been embraced by Pinoy radio and videoke never really die. For activists and fans (like me), how then can we begin to consider Roxette’s songs — and Marie Fredriksson’s voice — in today’s field of contradiction and crisis?

French philosopher Alain Badiou had marked out Art as one of his “truth procedures,” along with Science, Politics, and Love. A truth procedure is a process that can surface a “truth” from an “event” — where “truth” is the “exceptions to what there is”, and “event” is the disruption of what has been naturalized, “status-quo’d”, so to speak. This disruption allows that “truth” to be glimpsed and acted upon by people who choose “fidelity” (or to be true) to that truth (to become its “subjects”, or agentive actors).

In Badiou’s delightful formulations, the truth that art surfaces is the creation of new forms (or artistic configurations) where there were formerly none, which we experience as the “pleasure of a new perceptual intensity.” Only time will tell if Roxette will go down as an “event” in the Badiouan sense, but anyone who has inadvertently clenched a fist or closed her eyes right at the shift up a key in the last third of “It Must Have Been Love” has some idea of the perceptual intensity Roxette, with Marie’s vocals, was capable of.

Critique that pop songs are escapist fluff may sometimes hold water, but there is an alternative to this hardline stance. For one thing, this perspective lends itself well to what philosophers and cultural critics call “dystopic thinking.” Capitalism primes us for dystopic thinking, because it thrives on the idea that (as Slavoj Žižek and Fredric Jameson have said before) it is “easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.” This is the setting that invites us to cynically think that “we’ve heard this all before” and that, “there is nothing new left to be done.”

Its opposite is “utopian thinking” which, far from lay connotations of romanticism and idealism, actually challenges us to imagine a world that capitalism itself tells us is impossible (hence “utopian”). This concerns not only the sweeping structural changes that we can expect from an anti-capitalist revolution, but also the changes in the mundane, in the Tolstoyan drama of everyday lived experience. And so in Jameson’s essay “An American Utopia” he does not shy from imagining and discussing what “affects” (to put it simply, what people feel) would predominate a classless society in the earnest anticipation for such a thing.

Our ability to speculatively think in this way not only counters the totalizing dystopic narrative of late capitalism in order to allow us to envision what is at stake when we struggle for social change. It is also in the dialectical acknowledgement that, even in a society where the most substantive contradiction (that between class) has been eliminated, contradiction as such is still “forever”. So for Jameson, antagonisms will remain (he specifically focuses on envy), but importantly removed from structural and institutional levels where they can sweepingly exploit and oppress entire sectors of society.

In a revolutionary, egalitarian society, we can still get into earthly-all-too-earthly fights, and we can still get our hearts broken. But these are no longer with exploitation, patriarchy, and discrimination (and other manifestations of a class society) pulling those affective strings. I’d like to think that the songs of Roxette can be part of our soundtrack to a temporal moment (if not a historical era) where matters of the heart really are truly only such — and are no longer matters of rich or poor, of race, or of rigid notions of gender. After all, amidst the ephemerality of pop songs, people love to sing them precisely because they reach out to such a realm.

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