Discourses in Music: Volume 5 Number 2 (Fall 2004)

Hughes de Courson. Lux Obscura, EMI/Virgin Classics, 2003.

After having spent the past 48 hours writing pages and pages (and pages) of theory on camp, kitsch and parody, the task of reviewing Hughes de Courson’s “projet électro médiéval,” Lux Obscura (EMI/Virgin Classics, 2003), seems remarkably well timed. Whether by coincidence or cosmic convergence, the opportunity to train my freshly-learned understanding of these concepts on de Courson’s album—much like a sandblaster on a saltine cracker—is not to be missed. However, this review does not intend to be a ‘pan’ nor a paean of de Courson’s album; ultimately, the value of Lux Obscura will depend on the reader’s own valuation of camp, kitsch and parody in music. Furthermore, the estimation of cultural/aesthetic value is an ongoing process—it changes over time. Indeed, this consideration of camp, kitsch and parody can be presented through the story of how I came to review this album.

My first ‘point of entry’ to this recording was its cover art and packaging; as it was handed to me, I noted the simple composition of the ‘front’ image. The name of the album and a subtitle ran from the centre to the right-hand side of the image against an off-white background, preceded by the image of a reddish wax seal. To the left was a human figure in profile, head turned to gaze at the viewer. However, the surfaces of the body were completely concealed; the head was covered by a cylindrical, bullet-shaped, metal helm (à la médiévale) with narrow slits for eyes, while the body was wrapped in a sort of cloak apparently made of crinoline or another semi-transparent textile. Although the gender of the figure was ambiguous, this translucent material was also attached to the crown of the helm, in the manner of a hood or women’s veil.

The interior of the packaging, on the other hand, was not quite so obscure. The CD case was a paper 5-piece gatefold (one central square with four squares, attached on each side, that fold in to cover the centre square) instead of a jewel case. As I pulled each flap back, I came upon a series of ‘bust shots.’ Each involved a woman, alternately fair-skinned and dark-skinned, who still concealed her identity under the same metal helm, but resolved the ambiguity of the cover figure by showing her denuded shoulders, arms and breasts. In some cases, the crinoline cloak had been thrown over the shoulders; in other cases, it was entirely absent. For me, this series of images signaled a sort of oddly Orientalist reference to the (medieval) past as the mysterious feminine. Although most of my current work focuses on contemporary popular music, I am also a ‘lapsed’ medievalist and I still identify with medieval studies to a degree—such a degree that I was a bit put off by this romanticized re-presentation of the so-called ‘dark ages.’

It was when I re-read the album’s subtitle, however, that my ‘authenticity alarm’ started ringing. Go on, admit it. We may be reluctant to address authenticity in the poststructuralist landscape of the humanities, but the issue is well nigh unavoidable in popular music, particularly when it is ‘my music.’ My current field of study (and ‘my music’ for the majority of my lifetime) is Electronic Dance Music (EDM), and my identification with that constellation of genres (house, disco, techno, drum’n’bass, etc.) is even stronger than my medievalist leanings. So when I read the subtitle, “un projet électro médiéval,” I must admit that I was suspicious. Most of my experience with ‘EDM+Other’ hybrids came from the 90s (and ongoing) trend of ‘world beat’ music, based mostly in Europe and particularly in France. Popularized by groups such as Deep Forest, I have felt ambivalent, at best, about this practice; it tends to exoticize and trivialize the musical products of non-Western Others (and sometimes Western Others such as the Roma) while also trivializing EDM practices by (re-)presenting a highly clichéd electronic accompaniment for the oft-clichéd ‘ethnic’ melodies. Considering the exoticist treatment of the middle ages in the cover art and the reference to an electro-medieval project, I was expecting similar problems. When I read the credits and noted a long list of non-Western European instruments and performers (particularly Bulgarian gaidas and gadulkas, Iranian zarb, African wooden percussion and Indian tabla), I braced myself for some thoroughly exoticist and ‘cheesy’ schlock.

‘Cheesy,’ ‘clichéd,’ ‘trivial’: these all point to a decidedly kitsch aesthetic. Even the term schlock, as defined by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick in her essay on Oscar Wilde and the ‘sentimental,’ is proximate to kitsch, as it signifies a mass-produced, banal, unexceptional and merely adequate product.1 Kitsch encompasses this meaning but also tends to signify a kind of failure in excess/excess in failure where the artistic intentions of the creator seem to misfire. From this definition, Lux Obscura could be a very kitschy album; I originally saw it as de Courson’s attempt at postmodern parody. I don’t mean parody in the colloquial sense of mocking ridicule through distorted repetition but rather the formulation most eloquently put forward by Linda Hutcheon: a “double-process of installing and ironizing,”2 where meaning is generated through a marking of difference in “repetition with critical distance.”3 Based on this set of criteria, particularly that of ‘critical distance,’ I read de Courson’s recording as failed parody and thus successful kitsch.

However, there is a problem in this analysis, which can be highlighted with a further refinement of the term ‘kitsch.’ Based on a slight rewording of Sedgwick’s definition, kitsch is an attribution of ‘dupe’ and ‘duped-ness’ where the speaker claims to be exempt from being duped, while implicitly positing the existence of a kitsch consumer.4 Furthermore, kitsch assumes a producer/author who is either equally duped or a cynical exploiter of the imagined kitsch consumer, which brings us into the slippery world of intentionality. Is de Courson oblivious to the kitsch-ness of his album, or was this a cynical cash-grad, riding on the coattails of a popular but problematic ‘world beat’ scene?

With these new definitions for kitsch, I came to the decision that Lux Obscura was not kitsch, or at least not completely. I based this appraisal the two issues raised above: 1) I do not consider myself exempt from the power of this recording—I’m actually quite fond of a few of the tracks; and 2) I doubt that de Courson was either naïve or jaded in his approach to his project and its potential failings. For example, the first track, ‘Stella Splendens,’ with its electronic loops that seem to be borrowed from those dubious tutorial libraries of sequencing programs, struck me as merely unconvincing and mediocre; on the other hand, the fourth track ‘Alle,’ seemed to be deliberately over-the-top. Vocal samples stuttered and jumped like they were coming from a cheap, 20-year-old sampler while the accompanying electronic sounds, particularly the bassline, had a granulated, low-fi, bitcrushed sound that referenced both early 80s electro and the more recent ‘glitch’ and ‘electroclash’ sounds.

The seemingly knowing, winking, deliberately tacky approach of de Courson and my inability to remain ‘exempt’ from the allure of many of Lux Obscura’s tracks take us to the final destination of my story and my analysis. These circumstances seem much better fit for the poetics and aesthetics of camp. Indebted to the theorizations of Fabio Cleto, I define camp as the failure of performance or the performance of failure.5 While this may seem similar to definitions of kitsch, it highlights performance, suggesting that both producer and consumer may be aware of this failure and find it meaningful. Moreover, it implicitly allows room for the critic to locate ‘duped-ness’ in a camp object while also allowing him/herself to be duped—to be seduced into failure or by failure. This contrast is also reflected in Sedgwick’s contrast between kitsch-attribution and camp-recognition: we agree to take part in this economy of failure and ‘dupedom.’6

Ultimately, I consider camp, as subjectivity and discourse, to be the ability to love it and ‘love’ it at the same time. Similarly, de Courson fails to be authentic and succeeds, in that failing, to be inauthentic—authentically inauthentic, perhaps. Such campy texts and their openness to camp readings allow us to raise questions beyond genre and form and to the broader issues of originality, authenticity and intertextuality. On the other hand, some of it is just silly fun, and there’s nothing wrong with that, is there?

-Luis-Manuel Garcia

Works Cited

Cleto, Fabio. "Introduction: Queering the Camp." In Camp: Queer Aesthetics and the Performing Subject, edited by Fabio Cleto, 1-42. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1999.

Hutcheon, Linda. The Politics of Postmodernism. 2nd ed. London-New York: Routledge, 2002.

———. A Theory of Parody: The Teachings of Twentieth-Century Art Forms. Urbana-Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2000.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofky. "From 'Wilde, Nietzsche, and the Sentimental Relations of the Male Body." In Camp: Queer Aesthetics and the Performing Subject, edited by Fabio Cleto, 207-20. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press,1999. Orig. pub. Epistemology of the Closet, Berkeley-Los Angeles: California University Press, 1990.


1. Eve Kosofky Sedgwick, "From 'Wilde, Nietzsche, and the Sentimental Relations of the Male Body," in Camp: Queer Aesthetics and the Performing Subject, ed. Fabio Cleto (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press,1999, 1990), 218.

2. Linda Hutcheon, The Politics of Postmodernism, 2nd ed. (London-New York: Routledge, 2002), 89.

3. Linda Hutcheon, A Theory of Parody: The Teachings of Twentieth-Century Art Forms (Urbana-Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2000), 6.

4. Kitsch is a classification that redoubles the aggressive power of the epithet ‘sentimental’ by, on the one hand, claiming to exempt the speaker of the epithet from the contagion of the kitsch object, and, on the other, positing the existence of a true kitsch consumer…” Sedgwick, "From 'Wilde, Nietzsche, and the Sentimental Relations of the Male Body," 218.

5. Fabio Cleto, "Introduction: Queering the Camp," in Camp: Queer Aesthetics and the Performing Subject, ed. Fabio Cleto (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1999), 3, 24.

6. Sedgwick, "From 'Wilde, Nietzsche, and the Sentimental Relations of the Male Body," 219.