Natural’s Not in It; Militant Otherness in Music

A dark, inscrutable passageway into the undergrowth…

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Scratchy, anxious sound, ready to burst at the seams, lurching in sputters and starts until it crashes into another rhythmic contortion. Shimmering, skating, pummelling, staggering, slippery notes, squeezing into and past each other, squirming into the cracks in the firmament, the orifices in the mask.

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Stilted, empty, the third eye, plastered over the brain, reveals nothing but frothing slime and writhing tentacles, hagfish escaping the clutches of a predator, latching onto a carcass and burrowing into the meat hanging from its bones in loose strips. Disappointed, the priest switches on the television, only to see the same thing.

The only music program that had anything worth watching on it as I was growing up was Later With Jools Holland, and if that isn’t a damning indictment on the state of music culture in the 2000s then nothing is. If I’m honest, it was pretty dire, and it came down to a matter of desperately scratching for and hoping for something notable to knock me out of my seat from dull episode to dull episode; maybe something would every once in a blue moon, but there was always the feeling that this was despite, not because of the characterless production and impossibly enthusiastic old-school-showman-esque flapping of Jools himself to introduce each artist.  Worse than this was perhaps the interviews.. oh the interviews! Those sickly, chummy, trite performances of friendly banter with wrinkly old stars and veteran rock musicians. In fact the whole show often felt as if, when something worthwhile DID show up, Jools would burst up out of the stage in the centre of it and foist some kitsch boogie-woogie piano into the mix, imposing himself on the act with a little bit too much glee.

Later with… as I experienced it was in retospect the apotheosis of the de-othering of music culture, its full incorporation into a middle class bourgeois respectability that burbles on in the background while people talk about how nice the weather is. Any performance that dared to be somewhat confrontational [I might note that Sleaford Mods made an appearance], stuck out like a sore thumb to the extent that these performances where in fact marginalized, receiving far less airtime than the arid desert of larger acts and often being presented in such a way that they kind of fade away in comparison to the huge spectacle afforded the other guests. The stricly regimented and controlled nature of a Later episode foreclosed any real confrontation with the TV audience at home.. all could be neatly packaged so we could sit on the couch and receive a glossy slice of entertainment removed of any danger that it might come out at the screen at us and pull us protesting from our living rooms. 

“There is a future and we’re trying to build one”

Many might place this sense of “danger” firmly in the camp of a certain Rockist mindset, that classic rocknroll mythology, all drug-emaciated bodies, trashing hotel rooms and unchecked misogyny, the male ego allowed to run riot in the name of transgression and anti-authority posturing. This, needless to say, isn’t what I mean, not purely, anyway. The Sex Pistols for instance may have been marketed by McLaren via this mythology of danger and transgressive intervention, but when it came down to it their music is remarkably safe. Listen to Never Mind the Bollocks today, and what’s remarkable about it is how well produced clean and actually non-edgy it really is, with its thick distorted power chords and simple rock tunes.

Where the real radical element of punk came into play, as Simon Reynolds importantly made the case for in his document of the post punk event Rip it Up and Start Again, is in what happened afterwards. The real intervention wasn’t the Sex Pistols as much as it was John Lydon’s deconstruction of Johnny Rotten and the forming of Public Image Limited, drawing not from the tired simplicities of rocknroll but looking more towards the distinctly un-rock horizons of dub reggae and disco to inform their sound. Indeed, if Lydon is to be believed if he had more input on Never Mind… it would have been far more oriented in this direction, something difficult to imagine now. Placing Never Mind the Bollocks next to PiL;s towering post-punk work Metal Box illustrates quite how much of a push into the unknown the latter group was in comparison. Where with the Pistols one finds a thickly produced warm fuzzy wall of sound PiL delivers screeching, deconstructed high-end guitar tones not so much soaring as scattering over dub/disco infused bass/drum rhythms, Lydon’s lyrics plumbing not some image of him as this destructive antichrist come to destroy society but exploring deeply unsettling and strange currents in the sound through imagery and his unpracticed dissonant wail.

What manifested in post punk, despite all its wild variations and conflicting approaches, was the conviction that music culture must look forward. If Punk had been this attempt to strip back to a raw simplicity it was important in inspiring a pushback, many groups such as Magazine and Gang of Four expressing a disappointment in what Punk had actually produced, John Lydon’s own disillusionment leading him to effectively sabotage Malcom McLaren’s dreams of cultural terrorism, famously uttering the lines “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?” before walking off stage. What resulted, in a lot of the acts concurrent to and following 1977 was a riotous cultural ferment leading from the meeting of art school bohemia and the working classes into a kind of cultural meeting of high and low culture, what Mark Fisher called Popular Modernism, a popular culture that didn’t feel the need to be populist, that in some way treated its audience as intelligent rather than as cattle ready to be herded into the entertainment playpen.

Reading through Reynold’s book, I’ve re-listened to a lot of music I knew about and discovered a lot I didn’t, and it became more astounding throughout precisely how forward reaching and militantly adherent to ideas of newness a lot of this stuff was. Listening to Gang of Four’s Entertainment! for instance really hits home how absurd it is that the band are reduced to a footnote, influences on groups who are effectively delivering a warmed over non-political microwave-meal version of their sound. These are sounds that aimed to create the future; a modernist impulse infused within its structure that for Gang Of Four also manifests in their politicized content, but in other groups remained an ambiguous but no less militant drive to generate something unlike what had come before.

What I’d propose comes with this is a distinct and actively maintained position of otherness. Much of music culture of the time presented itself as alien, removed, cold.. and yet it drew people in with a non insignificant degree of fervour. Culture within the neoliberal framing of late capitalism predicates itself on a kind of faux-familiarity, a chummy, friendly, real-talk approach one can see in the bloated edifices of Britpop and the YBA movement in the 90s, the music culture of the post punk period often explicitly rejected what many saw as the trite and false appeals to authenticity of rock music, towards “letting it hall hang out” and being “real”. A rejection of this generated a kind of alienated otherness that really allowed the artists to manipulate and play with public image in a kind of demystifying coldness typified really in the name “Public Image Limited” the band’s concept as a corporation, the simple stripping back of typical “album” accoutrements and ease of use to produce the packaging of Metal Box, an effective deconstruction of the music commodity in its blank metal sheen [and yet, in this demystification, all we find is more mystique…] .

“The Way Out is Through the Door…”

This otherness within the music of the late 70s-80s specifically carried through to the image making potential realised in pop music, the spirit of Glam persisting through the generation of countercultures, most notably Goth, predicated on an arch coldness and impersonal wearing of masks, replicable appearances where the individual is subsumed within the culture they embrace, breaking down identity into the signifiers that define it to be remixed and blended at will, but providing a mould, a template that can be used to quickly repeat the same image. Music culture becomes identity thresher and production line simultaneously, a cut-and-paste collage of subject which in breaking down effectively the chain of elements that produce who we are understands our identity not as a concrete anchor keeping us tethered to the spot but a spinozist machine, wherein understanding its workings allows us autonomy over our own lives. The calculated presentation of image becomes taking control, an enacting of autonomy and a resistance of desire.

“The way out is through the door, how come nobody uses it?” asks Mark Stewart of The Pop Group on “Where There’s a Will”, the squalling free-jazz sax solo peppering itself all over the disco driven funk of the music beneath, an explicit formalisation of the implicit assumption of the time, that a new future was just past the next impasse, music was being made with the excited fervour of people who believed that the new was possible and who absolutely were not content with what they were given. There was the door, all we needed to do was use it, cross the threshold… The Avant Garde invading the stage of pop was symptomatic of this approach, the presence of this “other” of sometimes harsh, always strange experimental influence, even the taking up of the mantle held previously by the notably more exclusive Dada and Fluxus movements and translating it to popular forms, appearing as decidedly unsettling and weird presences in the mainstream.

None of this is to say by any stretch of the imagination that the 70s were some perfect utopia, some kind of nostalgic plea to return to a lost age; it is more of a call to rediscover futurity, find our way back to the way out. A certain militant otherness within post punk, an expression of affinity with the outside and through this fidelity to the future, is something that requires nurturing and fostering within the cultural milieu. Indeed we can trace much of this de-othering to what can be percieved as the failure of New Pop, the reduction of music to pure entertainment that resulted from the entryists and proponents of pop music in the mid-80s and their hope that by courting the mainstream they could subvert it. The mistake was to underestimate ultimately the ways in which ironic reflexivity and deconstruction can easily revert to the very things it intends to subvert. While early pioneers of New Pop such as Heaven 17 still maintained a distinct element of post-punk demystificatory ambition, the presentation of their music effectively acting as one big pop meta-commentary, the speed at which these sentiments reverted to the pure hedonist acquiescence of Wham! and Duran Duran is alarming in its totality.

Of course, in a sense, this de-othering effect ties directly into the increasing inability to imagine an outside. Glam, Post-Punk, Art Pop, all of their science fiction imaginings, dystopias and utopias both, dismissed like the silly fantasies of a child under the singular umbrella of late capitalism. While New Pop initially intended to infiltrate and destabilize, or that was the idea, it became a shibboleth of Thatcherite consumerist fantasies, the legitimate appeals to the alien and the other found in a group like The Associates with their absurdities, mystery, the impossibly sumptuous atmosphere of an album like Sulk, eclipsed entirely by Madonna’s material girl, redolent and shining in the status afforded her by the capitalist fulfilment of desire. This sense suddenly that the pop star is simply us without the wrinkles, a perfect image of an ordinary person, became the archetype, the universal standard.

Fangs Bared

So far I have discussed both the Rockist and Popist approaches to the kind of complex transgression that consists in this militant otherness. Of course this word, transgression is held up often as the core spirit of rock music, but what this actually means seems to evade the grasp of the concrete. Sure, if we look towards the situationist upheaval of punk, the shockwaves it left behind such as the No Wave movement in New York we can note a distinct focus on attempts to transgress social norms. No Wave was arguably such a short lived and brief phenomenon because it was rooted in this self-nihilating trangression, something that in its very nature cannot maintain itself, but in truth if anything defined post punk it is precisely this lack of concrete definition, this image of shifting sands, each grain proceeding to replace the last as the topology shifts again and again, refusing to settle.

Refusal to settle is precisely the situation many post punk acts found themselves in; more than this, refusal to retreat. Capital bakes into its libidinal systems this desire to return, to organic wholeness, to idyllic suburbia, the final defeat of the horror villain so everything returns to the perfect, unbroken utopia of the beginning. Of course, if we are to look towards Jameson’s understanding of the dialectic as a narrative, this becomes a distinctly different exercise, one undertaken if anything by the horror villain themselves, the act of unsettling the natural state of affairs, in order to return to something that is changed, different, a wrenching apart of reality to put it together in a different form. The cultural condition we can call postmodernism, with its stale repetition of historically distended forms, one that reached its apotheosis in a series of “revivals”, of 80s synthpop, of “post-punk”, of house music, eurodance… is in a sense a constant return to the natural state of affairs, the idyllic homestead, the perfectly preserved image of the picture postcard village suspended in a timeless collage.

While the temptation, as the PR narrative of Capital would have it, is an attitude of unbound optimism or even temporal chauvinism, to see not a stale desert of ghosts, but more variety. The ahistoricity of music culture becomes transformed into a flat pick’n’mix of musical styles, the supposedly exciting marketplace of cultural objects, lifted from their socio-historical backdrop and placed against a corporate void.

Reject this. I want to set out carving a path against culture as nothing more than consumer choice. Surely the strange sounds that tore me out of my boredom induced slumber and presented me with a way out mean something more than a damn industry paycheck, surely music is more than its “contribution to the economy”. I’ve long had a burning, simmering distaste for the word “industry” tacked onto things it has no business being associated with. When Adorno and Horkheimer railed against the “culture industry” were they predicting a world in which people think nothing of defining themselves as participants in the “creative industries”? The sheer stultifying de-libidinizing intensity of this linguistic tendency to reduce all to its contribution to capital cannot be understated, and it the fight to return to culture an idea of otherness is criminally undervalued.

Of course, the fact that such militantly outsider culture develops in tandem with the socio-economic situations that allow for its production emerges as something of a hurdle here. The re-emergence or reclaiming of DIY as a form of cultural production is somewhat key here I have come to believe, and something Simon Reynolds has argued; for all the claims of new pop, for all its entryist ambitions to deform from the inside, its submergence in glossy hedonic abandon ultimately gave credence to the social order of the day, and contributed indirectly to the crushing of the systems that made these self-sufficient outer breeding grounds of popular modernism, of experimentation and forward-looking sound-making, possible. It is where we are allowed to develop our ideas for the world, to set forth our manifestos and react to the world around us, that culture thrives again.

The internet at some stage provided a key bastion of hope for this, and for a time it saw a legitimate upsurge in the DIY spirit, of people producing wildly ambitious content from their bedrooms. Of course, the cold fingers of capital couldn’t let this lie for long, and now, and to some degree the dream of completely self sufficient underground culture on the internet crumbled, increasingly driven by the cogs of advertising, monetization and endlessly vapid similitude. Even if such initiatives CAN still be found on the internet, I would in fact emphasise the importance of fostering such an attitude in the flesh, as while the internet is a fantastic tool in some respects, of dissemination, of discussion [sometimes], it also stand consistently in between us and action. The unending low level stimulation of 24/7 connectivity might be marketed as some modernising, forward looking cyber-dream, but it manifests as a constant anxious presence on the edge of our thoughts, a creeping tic, any free time really beset by the constant FOMO … the twitch of the hand towards the phone in the pocket.

To distance ourselves from these deadening tentacles, to reclaim our time… to generate once more an outside, or a sense that there could be one. Even, to move forward with the conviction of our own otherness, may be possible again. To identify with the alien precedes the discovery of new worlds…

Otherness – Playlist

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