Thursday, June 2, 2011

Is pop eating itself?

Radio 4's Today programme ran a feature this morning in which esteemed rock critic Simon Reynolds argued that pop is caught in a constant cycle of repitition. He coins the phrase "retro-fetishism" and says we're heading for a cultural catastrophe, where "the seam of pop history is exhausted" and there is nothing left to copy.

What a load of old bollocks.

Reynolds' argument is broken down by category on the BBC website, and it's almost comically easy to refute.

For example, he compares Plan B to Phil Collins, because both are white men who appropriated the sound of Motown. Which is odd, because I don't remember Phil Collins or any of the Motown artists writing a concept album about a man accused of rape. Correct me if I'm wrong.

He goes on to say that any band who takes to the stage and performs a classic album in it's entirety is a slave to the past, committing artistic suicide.  No other artform, he argues, would rely so heavily on repackaging and re-selling its "greatest hits". He must have missed all those big municipal buildings where they hang paintings on the wall; or Hollywood's constant DVD, Blu-Ray, 3D reissuing cycle. I wonder what he thinks of the Royal Shakespeare Company?

And anyway, what's wrong with celebrating the past? Does Reynolds seriously believe all artists should emerge, blinking from the womb and create a new musical idiom from scratch? Well, I suppose it's one option - but I'd prefer to listen to Innervisions again.

Stripped of all its intellectual wordplay, Reynolds' argument essentially boils down to one point: "Modern music isn't as good as it was in my day". Which, in legal parlance, is known as the Totally Past It Granddad Argument.

Anyway, infuriated by this early-morning assault on all of logic, I messaged a friend with a timely rant. He emailed back in defence of (some of) Reynolds' points. I'm going to reprint our exchange below (and, yes, I'm aware of how egocentric that is).

My acquaintance wants to remain anonymous, by the way, so for the purposes of this article we'll call him Dr Alfonso de Pyjamabottom (Mrs).

Mrdiscopop: Please, please tell me that the Today programme has someone lined up to refute every single point in that ridiculous, facile and poorly researched argument.

Dr Alfonso: Well, Annie Nightingale had a crack, but Radio 4 listeners don't like grime, nor dubstep, in the main.

Mrdiscopop: Poor Annie! Although dubstep and grime are hardly where I'd have taken the argument, when more familiar acts like Radiohead and MIA are pushing the boundaries of what's acceptable sonically and lyrically.

Anyway, pop music has always been obsessed with pop music. The Beatles & The Stones covered Chuck Berry and the Isley Brothers, but went on to become hugely innovative. The UK punk scene, often seen as a revolution, was heavily influenced by bands like Wire and Television...

Music develops on a continuum, and the mainstream always feeds off the past. Simon's argument is just a headline looking for a reason to exist.

Dr Alfonso: Well, I think you've got a point, kind of, but I suppose I would argue that in pop music, the revolutions have not been new chord progressions or lyrics or production techniques, but a new or different attitude. You saw it in the 60s with a new kind of confidence - of not giving a shit; the 70s with serious drug-addled experimenters and then punk; then 80s smoothness and 90s hedonism. I'd probably argue that Radiohead, Sigur Ros and Arcade Fire have a new kind of emotional grandness / over-serious in their attitude - but again, that was the late 90s, early 00s.

So, obviously, there's always been recycling and referencing, but there doesn't seem to be a new attitude, a new form of rebellion, coming through. That the self created ubermench of Bowie then Madonna, then Marilyn Manson, then Lady Gaga seem still to hold sway seems pretty uninteresting now.

Do you see anything of that kind in music now? I have the feeling that all the kinds of rebellion have been mapped out, because unlike production or chords or lyrics, the options are pretty limited if you want to stay alive for a while.

Mrdiscopop: That's very true. What's more, there isn't a counter-culture for artists to tap into any more... Everything has been commercialised and branded, and artists rely on sponsorship to exist, so there's little to legitimately rebel against.

Having said that, MIA's paranoiac, anti-government lyrics have a certain frisson (even when they're undermined by her pampered lifestyle). And I think Arcade Fire articulate a sense of detachment and alienation that feels like a very 21st Century phenomenon.

Someone like Kanye West is interesting, in that he has a huge bragadoccio combined with a fragile ego - and has shamelessly dissected that throughout the course of his career. It's not really a fresh attitude, though, so much as a massively entertaining soap opera. And it leads directly to Kid Cudi, who wrote an entire album about depression and night terrors.

So, yes, rebellion seems to have taken second place to egotism (and endless rotten pop songs about "da club"). Which is perhaps indicative of society, and art as a whole... What do you think?

Dr Alfonso: Exactly, commercial egotism seems like the only attitude out there, and those who kick against it - like Arcade Fire - to try and find something more deeply felt. The options seem to be either shallow or anti-shallow.

What seems like a real shame to me was that the internet offered another system for music making - that you could rebel against the big labels, build your own scene and all that - which could usher in a more local, more personal kind of music - folk in nature if not sound.

But, as Adam Curtis is talking about in his documentary series, the internet and social media have actually made everyone converge in their opions. So everything is more conformist - especially the business side of things.

I mean, musical rebellion was always massively egotistical, but it seemed to be genuine as well in some way. And as soon as someone manages to articulate a new way of sticking it to the man, the man sees it as a huge money maker.

I think you can say the same thing about everything, though. Why was there no great new political movement that gained force after the financial crisis? Why are the depression rates spiraling out of control? There is a lack of passion in our culture that no-one has the passion to do anything about...

Does any music actually make you want to start a revolution or change your life at all any more?

Some food for thought, there.

Now... what does everyone think about the new Sugababes single?

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