Print Reviews
The Psychic Soviet
by Ian F. Svenonius
Drag City Inc. (2006)
The Psychic Soviet
7 / 10
To call The Psychic Soviet a book about rock and roll is misleading to the point of falsehood. Yes, there are essays contained within its pages that touch upon rock and roll specifically (and popular music in general), but The Psychic Soviet is anything but “a book about music.” Music is used as a lens, a porthole through which one can gaze, in a rather limited fashion, at the sea of politics, religion, and social conflict, with popular culture as refraction thereof—a smudge on the convexity of the idiom.

By appearances alone, The Psychic Soviet is one strange little book. Roughly the size of a pocket bible and bound in bright-pink textured vinyl—but a shade removed from the swirling sideburns in Milton Glaser’s portrait of Bob DylanThe Psychic Soviet looks to be a hipster’s interpretation of Quotations from Chairman Mao Zedong. It’s an ironic homage, and one that author Ian Folke Svenonius has no doubt intended. As a mainstay of the District’s musically-inclined politicos, Svenonius has, over the course of his fifteen-plus-year career, affected tendencies towards Anarchism, Communism, Socialism, Intellectualism, Punk, teenaged angst, Secular Humanism, and various other outré social and political elements. Regardless of rationale, if there is an underdog, Ian F. Svenonius is its pedant and champion.

Prior to the writing of The Psychic Soviet, Svenonius had earned his stripes as the frontman to avant-rock outfits like Nation of Ulysses, the Make-Up, and Weird War. He has also worked as a part-time DJ, and he is currently the host of the VBS.TV online interview series, “Soft Focus.”

For the unfamiliar, “Soft Focus” is perhaps the best (and most accessible) introduction to the dually aggravating and entertaining mindset of Ian Svenonius. Academic and conspiratorial to a fault, Svenonius maintains his own stable of sociopolitical hobbyhorses; dialectical evidence of class warfare is omnipresent, with Svenonius presenting himself as the representative of a shape-shifting proletariat in its constant struggle against fascist oppression, American Imperialism, corporate hegemony, and the flaccid obeisance of the bourgeoisie.

Heavy stuff indeed. Yet there is a sense of comic precision to Svenonius's oft-incendiary diatribes, a set-up-to-punchline progression that belies his seemingly dour, business-only attitude. While interviewing musicians and performers like Andrew W.K., William Oldham, and Ian MacKaye, Svenonius vacillates between deathly seriousness and tongue-in-cheek lampoonery, enshrouding himself with a wryly supercilious air not unlike a Marxist version of Stephen Colbert.

If taken the wrong way (which is to say, too seriously), Svenonius’s rants are guaranteed to offend. Similarly, the essays contained in The Psychic Soviet are sure to either confound or infuriate the unprepared reader. To whit: according to the paranoid Weltanschauung of The Psychic Soviet, “Seinfeld” creators Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld are the masterminds behind the gentrification of New York and its fellow cities, while similar yuppie-centric sitcoms like “Friends” and “Sex in the City” are further promoting the eviction of inner-city culture and the establishment of high-priced, milquetoast urban-inanity. In the combined world of literature and film, The Lord of the Rings author J.R.R. Tolkien and director Peter Jackson are raging misogynists. According to Svenonius, the One Ring and the fiery eye of Sauron are vaginal totems, while Frodo Baggins is the elected emissary and poster child of Gandalf’s anti-female homosexual-pedophilic agenda.

In politics, the Cold War is viewed as a Jungian mother-father conflict between the overprotective manipulations of Soviet “Mother” Russia and the absentee parenting of the United States. Hollywood is establishing a new order of nobility, dynastic families who consider themselves above the law and are granted undue influence over a nation of pop-culture-imbibing sycophants. England uses a false air of charm and civility to prey upon comely Swedish women, luring them into the arms of larry punters and football hooligans who use and abuse them to their black-hearted content. Fueled by a love of Wagnerian tragedies, Hitler is shown to exhibit the same suicidal tendencies and flair for the dramatic as many of our most beloved (and self-destructive) pop and rock stars. Oh, let’s not forget the comparison of musical genres with the conflicts and schisms inherent to organized religions.

On the musical end of things, Punk is revealed as a blatant misappropriation of gay culture. The professional rivalry between the Beatles and the Rolling Stones is a parallel to the split between Stalinist and Maoist Communism. Folk is discredited as a facile movement of idealistic weaklings who lost track of their original communal purpose, and Bob Dylan is fingered as a self-serving defector to the marketing potential of electrified Capitalism. Further down the road, the DJ is touted as the logical conclusion to the capitalist industrialization of music and art: an anonymous musical stockbroker who benefits from the creative labour of others while contributing nothing of his own.

These assertions and their explanations comprise the bulk of The Psychic Soviet and, regardless of how self-effacing they may sometimes be, are exceptionally hard to swallow. Admittedly, my first instinct was to throw the book across the room in frustration at its apologist stances and neigh-indefensible suppositions—don’t even get me started on the apparent rationalization of Hitler’s opera-inspired anti-Semitism in “The Responsible Use of Rock N’ Roll.” Then there’s “Mordor Dearest,” which raised my hackles in defense of English Literature. Not to mention the blatant inaccuracies and baffling assertions regarding cultural conquests and beverage cooption in “The Bloody Latte”—considering how Svenonius’s essays tend towards the academic, his complete and utter lack of cited sources is positively confounding. My inner English professor is reeling.

Even so, Svenonius’s indictments of Bob Dylan and the Folk movement in “Eat the Rocument” are spot-on, albeit especially caustic. Similarly, the paired celebration and degradation of The Cappuccino Kid in both “The Stilyagi” and “The Seduction of Paolo Hewitt” (a closet drama) are nothing if not wildly entertaining.

And, really, that’s the point—The Psychic Soviet is not meant to be a serious read. It is parody in its most blatant and brazen form. In Svenonius’s introduction, he clearly states that “None of this collection is to be confused with so-called ‘academia.’ Instead, it is a kind of free verse, outside of science or respectability and at liberty to flaunt its diabolical exhumations on its user.”

In other words: it’s all a big joke, so don’t get your knickers in a twist. Sit back, kick your feet up, read along, and enjoy the mind-boggling insanity that is The Psychic Soviet. Who knows? You might even learn something.
Posted by: Tom Körp

Print Reviews (January 20th, 2008)