Ooh to be Ah: the Author as Rock Star
by Patrik Sampler
What role does an author play—or not—in our understanding of their work? Answers can be found in surprising places, and the 1983 promotional video for “Ooh to Be Ah,” a song by the band Kajagoogoo, is one such location. In it, we encounter wisdom regarding the role of literature, the folly of authorship, and how the two interact.
In some corners of literary parlance, there have been ever smaller concentric circles closing around the person of the author, a gradual collapse of that ethereal zone between audience and performer toward an inflexible, single meaning. The video for “Ooh to Be Ah” highlights the problem by creating quite the opposite effect of enclosure, and this raises it to the quality of a short film, as opposed to merely a music video. Let’s call it Ooh to Be Ah. It has a lot going on. It has some word bubbles, and a lightness of approach reminiscent somehow of Jean-Luc Godard. To invoke yet another film auteur, Andrei Tarkovsky tells us—and perhaps it is just a platitude—that a book read by a thousand different people is a thousand different books. Ooh to Be Ah certainly gives us that freedom of interpretation.
In the opening scene bass guitarist Nick Beggs is walking down a street, smiling and waving to get the attention of an attractive woman. He is joined by another man, monochrome black, who matches his every move at immediate close range, like a shadow, or like a bunraku puppet master. Is he Nick Beggs’ controller? His id or subconscious? A symbol for the vacuity of mere appearance? Here the video takes on the quality of literature—a vehicle for expansive understanding. Here we encounter the literary “multi-dimensional space” that Roland Barthes proposed many years ago.
An invocation of Barthes is central in replying to the received idea that the essence of the author can be found in a set of signifiers, which must align with the text. Ooh to Be Ah is very much concerned with signifiers—with those things that make one appear to be a rock star. Next we encounter the band’s singer, Limahl, sharing a limousine with a stylishly dressed woman. She opens a bottle of champagne, they alight at a posh hotel, and Limahl is so drunk he needs to be carried into the lobby. One might meet the expected outward appearance of a famous rock musician, but can one sing or play an instrument—or at least stand up?
In the world of writing we often we encounter author biographies emphasizing all the things an author signifies apart from their writerly output: where the author lives, how they look, their hobbies, their political affiliations, whether they are ‘available,’ etc. Contrast such proclamations with those regarding an author’s mode of writing, output to be regarded on its own. When an author bio conflates the writer’s person with their output, it suggests the kind of ‘middlebrow’ motives Virginia Woolf defines as “neither art itself nor life itself, but both mixed indistinguishably, and rather nastily, with money, fame, power….”
Ooh to be Ah remarks on such motives, on the folly of prioritizing appearance over function. Perhaps the film’s strongest image in this regard is of drummer Jez Strode taking a serving tray held aloft by a waiter who continues walking, automaton-like, with his carrying hand in the same position, as if nothing had been removed from it. When we perform an action, are we actually doing it, or are we merely imitating the shape of doing it? The repeated gag for Nick Beggs and his bunraku minder is that they walk straight into things and knock themselves out because they are too distracted caring about whether others are watching them.
We might doubt the practicality of this critique. After all, the rock star’s musicality has long been intertwined with their image, and Kajagoogoo, beyond their musical virtuosity, were regarded as a ‘hair band.’ So we should admit, too, that there have also been ‘hair authors’—and at the same time question whether the ‘hair author’ assists literature to its highest spiritual potential. Barthes, in his advocacy for the “multi-dimensional space,” presents it as antidote to the “Author-god” model of literature—to the ‘hair author,’ or the author as ‘rock star,’ if you will—explained as the “culmination of capitalist ideology” based in “the prestige of the individual.”
The observation is true, and we might wonder if the “Author-god” model—in which the author is the final arbiter of meaning—may lead to an absurd, logical conclusion. That is, to verify the author/text correlation, might an author be compelled to go as far as taking a genealogical DNA test? One might see this as obscene and improbable, but there has been at least one case, and in Ooh to be Ah we observe a related conundrum: in another scene the bunraku man is momentarily confused when Nick Beggs’ doppelganger crosses their path in the hotel’s dining lounge. The bunraku man hesitates, unsure which man to follow. Who is the real Nick Beggs? We may never know for sure, and it might not matter. What matters is what each does or accomplishes. Alas, one man joins a lady for dinner, while the other continues on his vacuous path, smiling and waving.
Finally, there is an earthquake, and the film ends in chaos. As the shaking of the earth continues, a character shakes the dust out of his hair, checks his look in the mirror, and gives himself a thumbs-up. This may prompt us to ask how we will respond if and when the ‘big one’ happens. Will we be concerned first by what it has done to our appearance, or will we find some function for ourselves amidst disaster? And what of those slow-moving disasters? Are we merely posing in response (a sad face emoji here, an expression of outrage there) or are we actually doing something about them? Well, the earthquake scene in Ooh to Be Ah certainly punctuates the nonsense idea that image can magically invoke substance—moreover, the idea of art mixed up “rather nastily” with empty signification, public relations.
Patrik Sampler is author of the novels Naked Defiance (New Star Books, 2023) and The Ocean Container (Ninebark Press, 2017). His short-form writing has appeared in a variety of publications including The Guardian, The Millions, and The Scofield. He devoted the better part of a postgraduate degree to the late-career work of Abe Kobo, and was a contributing editor for the surrealist journal Peculiar Mormyrid in its early stages. www.patriksampler.com
Photo source: Marius Masalar/Unsplash