Memo From the Office of Rock ‘n’ Roll

the weird subversiveness of npr’s tiny desk concerts.

It’s rather comical to suggest that anything on National Public Radio might be subversive unless you are a raving conservative reactionary, but there is something strangely weird and wonderfully jarring about NPR Music’s Tiny Desk Concert series, which brings musicians in to perform at host Bob Boilen’s desk at the radio station’s Washington, DC headquarters.

On one level, the shows evoke the ways in which corporate workplaces strive to be cool by resituating the point of consumption and leisure at the point of production. This is a nifty trick. Concealing the extraction of labor that is the whole point of having a separate workplace from the home, the presence of music one would typically hear during off hours in a nightclub, at a concert, in a car, or on the stereo in your own house simultaneously exoticizes and domesticates the office. In an even more intensive way than portable audio devices such as the Walkman or the Ipod, it mingles different sonic environments to confuse the modalities of consumption and production. “See,” the appearance of a band in the midst of the institutional setting of an office proposes, “bureaucratized and routinized labor ain’t so bad, now, is it, when everyone gathers around a band playing next to your desk?”

On another level, the Tiny Desk Concerts remind me of the Belle and Sebastian song, “Legal Man,” in which the Scottish band borrows the sitar-pop sounds of the mid-60s to call for a contemporary collective liberation from clerical work. “Get out of the city and into the sunshine / Get out of the office and into the springtime!” the band sings, a mighty chorus in an ocean of reverb as the music rises and crests at the end of the song. “Legal Man” takes place at an office that might not look too different from Bob Boilen’s desk. But it declares a joyous announcement of potential transformation that lies just beyond the modular furniture, the lobby, and the revolving door.

Amayo of Antibalas, Tiny Desk Concert, 4 October 2012.

Only the Tiny Desk Concerts flip the song’s meaning. Instead of calling for workers to abandon their cubicles for the sunshine and the springtime, Tiny Desk shows invite sunshine and springtime through the unopenable windows and air conditioner vents, right in to the spaces of Bartleby-like alienation in the office itself. Musical performance, captured in this unlikely setting and sent out on computer video to other offices around the world, suggests that the boundaries between work and play, dreariness and freedom, intimacy and publicness, sound and silence, the hours on the clock and the hours off it, are ultimately false ones. Other energies, other sounds, other sensations, other ideas, maybe even other actions cannot get entirely muffled by the industrial carpets and the padded baffles.

Merrill Garbus, Tune-Yards, Tiny Desk Concert, 1 December 2011.

Watching the Tiny Desk Concert series videos, you might most of all feel the ways in which music can start to reconfigure spaces of power at their most banal, bouncing off the walls of the architectures of information-age normality with the sound of other modes of expression and communication. There is a mirage-like quality to the performances in this respect, something like a funny juxtaposition from a bad advertisement staged in an office or an excerpt from a particularly painful episode of The Office. It’s all a bit awkward, this music among the file cabinets. And yet as the music starts to play, an uncanny feeling arises as well. The energy of transformation, of a different configuration of autonomy and freedom, of sociality and connectedness, appears too.

What is it doing there?! Really it just whispers through the speakers, on the headphones, in the circuitry of one’s computer. The music overtakes the intercom for a moment even as it gets absorbed into the institutional setting that surrounds it. Each sound, leaving nothing much changed that we can see, invisibly scrawls a new version of the great Situationist graffiti from Paris 1968 across the desktops: Under the stacks of papers, the beach!

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