The BBC Radio 4 programme “New Weird Britain” presented by John Doran, is the kind of thing that begins to suggest in some way that the end of history is itself at an end. Something notable about the musicians interviewed and explored here is not only that they firmly turn their eyes away from the commercial viability of their art, but also that they resist identification with those marked off “alternative” spaces which for so long have made the kind of cultural percolation that leads to more widespread innovation incredibly sparse and difficult.
What this phenomena, whether the name of “New Weird Britain” sticks or not, points towards is a change in atmosphere. “It’s finally happening” exclaims Cosi Fanni Tutti in the last segment of the programme, in reference to what we might tentatively see as a largely DIY cultural response to times of heaving angst and danger. The rulebooks are useless, and those who still desperately adhere to them increasingly resemble the hopeless gestures of a dying empire. In this climate, one where the bedrock of political confabulation churns and shudders with the trauma of centuries, where a reactionary Frankenstein’s monster attempts to claw back to an organic totality, an idealistic golden age, it is in many ways no surprise that the world of the freak, the alien, makes the most sense. It is in this spirit that currents of weird or experimental culture have always acted, and it is at times of confluence, where socio-political and material effects come crashing into our cultural consciousness, that a blossoming of the weird promises to emerge, pulsating, into the light.
The problem with “alternative” culture for a long time has been precisely the problem with what its an alternative to. Rather than being an experimental underground feeding up into the mainstream, it has been presented separately, kept to the margins, at best when it is brought up being treated with a kind of sneering condescension. Another issue, increasingly I think, is connected to the differing modes of consumption now dominated by streaming, by an ostensible world of individual choice, where we can listen to or watch anything we want at any given time. What this leads onto is the reality of this world, driven by algorithms and consumer preference, in which a general beige-ness begins to dominate. This isn’t to say there is nothing weird going on, merely that we are drawn inexorably to what we already want to consume, and so instead of experiencing this percolation of different elements of culture we begin to simply play to our individual tastes.
Indeed this is something notable about New Weird Britain even being aired on Radio 4, the radio being something that can potentially still deliver surprises, rip through the curtain of consumer taste, deliver a challenging programme on fringe culture somewhere in the vicinity of who’s line is it anyway. What I think is truly important about the fringes is not simply their alternative status, “alternative” as such having become another product on a shelf, another consumer identity signifier, but their ability to disrupt the everyday. There is some amount of truth to the idea that the world, politically and environmentally, is becoming weirder in terrifying ways, inasmuch as the rather comfortable assumptions we held about the end of history, of liberal civility, that everything would more or less continue as it did, have fallen apart. This, however, I don’t think necessarily translates into cultural developments without a legitimate establishing of underground experimentation, not only that, but one that feeds in, that extends feelers into the media, appears when you least expect it, that embodies what we might consider as weird by being where it doesn’t belong.
New Weird Britain is in essence identifying what seems to be a resurgent underground space which might itself have discordant echoes in the churning cultural landscape itself. The presence of a thriving underground in British culture is something that itself seems so alien now that its mere presence has a kind of power. It may admittedly be my own biases speaking however I think if we truly are seeing an incursion of the weird, it is imperative that it is encouraged, pushed further, that its resonances are amplified. The danger here would be simply in assuming its some other place were the freaks gather, something somehow completely disconnected from widespread cultural production. The power of a DIY approach here is notable not because it escapes these constrictions but because it reacts to them. And isn’t this what proves so exciting ultimately about the prospect of this new underground, the prospect of culture that believes in itself, that sets forth its own way of being. The act of reacting to what comes before you, against it, is something that moves beyond the mere act of producing work which pleases you into a militant act.
[Note: I realise I end this referring to militancy and this brings up the complex issue of didacticism in music. The marvellous Richard Dawson brought this up in the programme, mentioning what he perceives as the problem of didacticism in protest music, in contrast with how he approaches the political in his own work. This I think deserves a whole post at some point, but suffice to say that I think this hits at some core problems with how we talk about “political” culture, this division between the kind of folky back to basics didacticism and music as dictated by the pleasure principle, that pretends to be “a-political”. To clarify I do think Dawson’s own music manages to move past this divide extraordinarily well]