TV or Not TV | The Politics of Dancing: Adam Curtis’ Can’t Get You Out of My Head

By Jason Anderson

Dream of the perfect life
Economic circumstances
The body is good business
Sell out, maintain the interest

—Gang of Four, “Natural’s Not In It”

With the arrival of any new Adam Curtis film comes a deluge of coverage, commentaries, analysis, harangues, point-counterpoints, fact checks, further-reading lists, and good old-fashioned snark spread across an ever-expanding plethora of platforms. The resulting cacophony makes one of the fundamental appeals of Curtis’ practice—his seeming ability to wrest a temporary sense of order and coherence from a dense matrix of ideas, factoids, fragments, and audiovisual ephemera from deep within the BBC archive that otherwise threatens to feel as disordered and disorienting as everyday life—seem all the more valuable.

Then again, there’s always a trove of quality zingers in the YouTube comment sections for Curtis films that have migrated over from their original home on the BBC iPlayer. “imagine searching for a kylie minogue song and finding this,” reads one post lodged near the top of the growing pile for part one of Curtis’ new six-part series Can’t Get You Out of My Head: An Emotional History of the Modern World. There’s a whiff of condescension in the suggestion that fans of the Australian pop diva will be baffled, outraged, and/or accidentally radicalized when an effort to savour her impossibly sleek 2001 dance-pop single instead yields an eight-hour rumination on the death throes of 20th-century political ideologies, the false promise of individualism, and the bankruptcy of meaning in the rage-fuelled age of Trump, Putin, and Farage. Instead, given the loyalty that both Minogue and Curtis command due to their reliable ability to deliver what’s promised by their brands for well over three decades now, it’s more reasonable to believe that there’s a large degree of overlap in any Venn diagram-style breakdown of their two constituencies. What’s more, all such musical references and matters in regards to Curtis’ latest opus are anything but tangential or tertiary to the intentions and effects of what may be the director’s most expressionistic and most mellifluous work to date. In other words, this may be the most satisfying incarnation of the mixtape he’s been fussing over for ages.

Like a good many mixtapes, it begins with Kylie. Curtis claims that he did not intend any disrespect to Minogue or her signature hit, which he has correctly described as “one of the great pop songs of all time.” His appropriation of the title rates as only mildly cheeky, even if he has shifted its meaning from the feeling of exhilaration fostered by a new romantic obsession (a quintessentially Minogueian theme, c.f., “Love at First Sight,” “Secret (Take You Home),” “Magic”) into a darkly comedic reference to one of the show’s central thrusts: the discouraging notion that we foolish humans are ultimately less driven by ideas or ideals than by emotions, opinions, and other aspects of the self that we may believe we generate ourselves in some fundamental way but may really be Inceptioned within us by political and technocratic forces whose full capabilities we can barely comprehend.

Alas, Curtis opted not to include the song itself among the many musical choices for the series, feeling that an appearance beyond the title nod would be “too obvious.” Though some Minogue loyalists may believe it could’ve been the perfect endnote, that space is taken by Gang of Four’s “Natural’s Not In It,” a song whose lyrics qualify as a remarkably on-point précis of Curtis’ orientations and objectives—not just in Can’t Get You Out of My Head, but across the broad span of his oeuvre. “Coercion of the senses,” barks singer Jon King over a rhythm that’s more agitated but still at least 65% as danceable as Minogue’s masterwork; “We are not so gullible/ Our great expectations, a future for the good.”

As is the case with so much of Can’t Get You Out of My Head, the music of British post-punk’s funkiest political theorists is a well that Curtis has drawn from before. King and the late Andy Gill (King’s principal partner in Gang of Four, and also a schoolmate and longtime friend of Curtis’) provided original music for Pandora’s Box (1992), the six-part series on technocratic rationalism that helped establish the Curtis template. The inclusion of “Natural’s Not in It” in Can’t Get You Out of My Head serves the additional purposes of acknowledging Gill’s passing and providing a crafty callback to Jiang Qing, Mao Zedong’s wife and a member of the bona-fide Gang of Four, one of several figures whose appearance and reappearance over the course of Curtis’ series provides another quasi-musical element to the structure of the piece.

As such, Jiang is part of a fascinating coterie that includes self-styled Notting Hill gangster turned John-and-Yoko compatriot and would-be revolutionary Michael X, Black Panther Party member Afeni Shakur (mother of Tupac), transgender activist Julia Grant, American prankster Kerry Thornley, and current Guantanamo Bay resident Abu Zubaydah. These figures’ intertwined stories become a means for Curtis to chart the changes in culture and politics along a trajectory that travels from the post-colonialist and radical-leftist ruptures of the ’60s through the failures and collapses of the ’70s into the post-ideological, post-individualistic, tech-saturated and conspiracy-rife morass of our present. Over and over we witness how many of these human subjects try and fail to use radical and revolutionary means to reveal reality as it is and as it could be, thereby rescuing us from the prefab lie of “dream world” (Curtis) or “dream of the perfect life” (King/Gill).

Add mentions of MK Ultra and the rise of data analytics and predictive modelling and images of insurrectionist mobs and old-school IBM mainframes, and Can’t You Get Out of My Head can feel less like that exhilarating mixtape and more like a setlist of faves for the fans in the front row. Yet there’s much else here that’s indicative of a wider effort by Curtis to revitalize and reconfigure his methodology. Whereas more recent additions to his oeuvre, such as Bitter Lake (2015) and Hypernormalisation (2016), largely refused to deviate from the Curtisian mean, Can’t Get You Out of My Head marks a bolder departure from his thematic and formal comfort zone. Along with the increasing emphasis on the character arcs of his human subjects over his more customary big-idea strategy, the expanded role of music may be the most significant development in Curtis’ approach.

To be clear, music has never been a secondary concern for Curtis, an unusually savvy filmmaker when it comes to the interplay between soundtrack selection and the rest of the text. Endearingly frank about his limitations as a historian and theoretician (which helps undercut the criticisms of him as the kind of intellectual poseur who’s become too popular to take seriously), he is keenly aware of the importance of a song in creating a mood, one “that explains as much as what I’m saying in the words.” But while Curtis has always been a crafty magpie when it comes to his selections and sources, his range of choices narrowed over time as he relied more and more heavily on dark, doomy electronic tracks by Aphex Twin et al. and hauntological ambience provided by sometime collaborators like Martin Jenkins (Pye Corner Audio) and Gavin Miller (worriedaboutsatan). Segments of the Curtis fanbase bristled at the predictability that set in: as another YouTube commenter put it in a note on a recent Curtis interview with Mark Kermode, “The end soundtrack will be Burial and we all know this.”

Freer and unrulier in their mergers of sound and image, the most mesmerizing passages of Can’t Get You Out of My Head feel like extensions of Curtis’ partnerships with Massive Attack on the 2013 installation Everything Is Going According to Plan and the visual backdrops for the trip-hop heavyweights’ Mezzanine tour in 2019. As much as his montage technique remains rooted in the lessons of Emile de Antonio and Craig Baldwin, Curtis’ capacity for surprising and exciting juxtapositions has increased, perhaps because he demonstrates a greater understanding of when to linger on a moment and let the viewer sink into the mood he’s calibrated so carefully. Anyone who felt unexpected pangs of emotion at the combination of Brian Eno’s “On Some Faraway Beach” and the Jane Fonda’s Workout video in Hypernormalisation may be similarly entranced by the sight of a woman primping a wax statue of Putin to the dreamy accompaniment of the Paris Sisters’ “I Love How You Love Me” (the most spectral of Phil Spector productions) or a dancer taking the stage in a seedy ’60s gentlemen’s club to the ringing opening chords of “Where Were You?” by the Mekons (who, like Gill, were schoolmates of Curtis at Sevenoaks). Elsewhere, Curtis upends expectations and opens up liminal spaces via his chilling use of the Incredible String Band’s “Air,” Bright Eyes’ “Lua,” and several ghostly covers by This Mortal Coil.

The music of the latter—a pet project of 4AD boss Ivo Watts-Russell that included musicians from many acts on the label performing covers of songs by ’60s and ’70s underground heroes like Tim Buckley, Roy Harper, and Gene Clark—is another throughline that connects moments of eerie transcendence across the Curtis canon. It’s tempting to speculate that Curtis’ main motivation for working with Massive Attack was to help facilitate the public reappearance of Elizabeth Fraser, the Cocteau Twins singer and sometime Massive Attack vocalist whose performance of Buckley’s “Song to the Siren” was This Mortal Coil’s finest achievement. In any case, experiencing the angelic voice and shadowy sight of Fraser amidst the Curtis-enhanced and strobelight-heavy sensory assault of the Mezzanine performances in 2019 now feels like an IRL adjunct to the most sublime sequences of Can’t Get You Out of My Head.

As delighted as Curtis clearly is to find the ideal placements for all of these cherished musical reference points, his nerdy joy may be most palpable in a clip that couldn’t be more perfect for the proceedings: the excerpt of a teenaged Tupac Shakur performing DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince’s “Parents Just Don’t Understand” in a video recorded while he was attending the Baltimore School for the Arts in 1986. Given the radical mindset that the budding hip-hop superstar inherited from his mother Afeni and which fuelled his own music before he caved to pressures to conform to the dictates of the thug life he dramatized, it’s a stunningly weird and giddily energetic moment. (Perhaps fearful that he may cause heads to explode, Curtis leaves out the fact that the 17-year-old Shakur’s partner in the goofy video is his classmate Jada Pinkett.)

The younger Shakur is not the only figure here who is fuelled by this unruly dynamic between a need for artistic expression, a passionate hope for societal transformation, and a deeper personal turbulence that manifests as a death drive. A Russian writer who came to the US in the ’70s as part of a wave of Soviet dissidents alongside Solzhenitsyn, Eduard Limonov decried the “plague of money” in his taboo-busting literary sensation It’s Me, Eddie before returning home to become a neo-fascist provocateur promoting the same nationalist myths that became so valuable to Putin. Inadvertently accelerating the addling of the American mind with dark fantasies of sinister elites, Kerry Thornley goes from sunny countercultural prankster to paranoid bit player in the JFK conspiracy saga.

Yet for all the destruction that any of these men may have intentionally or unintentionally wrought in the world, none can compare with the terrors unleashed by Jiang Qing, the young actress who became Mao’s personal secretary and fourth wife before the decades-long battles for supremacy within the Communist Party culminated in the Cultural Revolution and the rise and fall of the Gang of Four (again, not the one that recorded “Anthrax”). She also provides Can’t Get You Out of My Head with some of its most remarkable displays of visual splendour, via excerpts of the revolutionary operas she engineered for stage and screen. We also see the younger Jiang as a supporting player in Bloodshed on Wolf Mountain (1936), whose star, Li Lilli, would later be denounced and tortured during the Cultural Revolution, which Curtis presents as vicious payback for daring to outshine a future member of the Politburo.

The film’s vivid portrait of Jiang and empathetic regard for all of the figures here who could have easily been presented as monsters may be the starkest proof that, just as in his nod to Kylie, Curtis was not being coy when he included “emotional history” in his subtitle. Despite the sense of chilly remove that’s long been an aspect of Curtis’ work, there’s no mistaking the paramount importance of honest-to-god human feelings as he weaves together his subjects’ individual tales of utopian ideals, disappointment, disillusionment, resilience, and reinvention before it all ends in tears. Many Curtis followers watching Can’t Get You Out of My Head at home on the BBC iPlayer or YouTube’s Adam Curtis Documentary channel will find that the takeaway they may be more accustomed to receiving—“We are all hopelessly trapped in systems and patterns of control, so fuck it, here’s a song by Burial”—has been replaced by something more ineffable and altogether more poignant. That said, more cynical members of the fanbase will be understandably wary of any such suggestion of transcendent feeling: as King chants over Gill’s concluding cycle of riffs in “Natural’s Not In It,” “This heaven gives me migraine.” But there’s got to be a world after this dream world.