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Music Politics

Utopia at the Weekend

“Can music change the world?” is the question that dogs me more than any other at the moment, and suffice to say, as Simon Reynolds acknowledged during this years Mark Fisher memorial lecture, it has no simple answer. There is always the risk of a kind of theory-based wish fulfilment fantasy when addressing this, as evidenced by countless incidents wherein we will place whatever we are concerned with at the heart of some world-shifting rupture, as not only a method, but a central mechanism of change. Because my investment in music comes from a well of emotion it would be all too easy to progress from a confident affirmation of emancipatory power, to insist from the off that music is a revolutionary force as if this is a given. When I place importance on the question of music and political change, it is to avoid this assumption, but to commit to a certain confidence, perhaps misplaced but difficult to dislodge, that music is of importance, that it deserves more than we give it, and that in fact, the very act of writing about music still has a point.

This last point is something that I unambiguously take a side on, for good or ill, if only through my subjective experiences of music writing as an expansive tool, whether as a reader or writer. Without the idea, found largely in writing, of new worlds and experiences heralded through music, I probably wouldn’t have started this blog or rediscovered the value of theory in the first place. Whether it is in the form of a linking of ideas to cultural production or the heightening of emotional potential in the very sound of the music itself, the prism of the music-writer has continued to prove invaluable to me. This is something that has emerged for me particularly upon reading through Agnes Gayraud’s Dialectic of Pop, David Wilkinson’s Post-Punk, Politics and Pleasure in Britain, and attending the Simon Reynolds lecture, three “events” which have intertwined and coalesced into a series of concerns and questions.

Reynold’s lecture in particular channelled a lot of my reading through what was a stimulating if meandering excavation of Mark Fisher’s engagement with music and what it entails, as well as more specifically surprising engagement with bands like the Jam and the counterculture of the 60s, which earlier on had come under some notable ire in a few K-Punk posts. The evocation of the power of music here, and its utopian tendencies [even as often this utopia is deferred, the weekend is constantly on the horizon, the revolution is always tomorrow] emotionally channelled a lot of what I’d read not too long prior from Gayraud. Dialectic of Pop, notably, is far from an unambiguous culturalist defence of pop as utopian force, or even a defence of pop as artform as such, something that I would argue barely needs saying today, rather it is an invigorating philosophical engagement with pop-as-artform via a critique of its most famous detractor Adorno. The implications of the work I think demand further engagement, and I’m curious as to how this emerges in time, but for me it begged further questions regarding the implications of production.

By addressing technology, mediation and production as the central components of pop as a musical form, Gayraud immediately hits at something I think is key to addressing it, whether we do so as a critic or an academic or both. Derrida didn’t make an appearance in the book explicitly, but in addressing the inherent deferral of authenticity in recorded music and expression, I couldn’t help but think of him. What Gayraud implicitly deals with through her addressing of a paradoxical “grounded authenticity”, as well as her account of both pop and music concrete being arts of “fixed sounds”, defined not, as in prior forms in which the “object” was prefigured, symbolised by a score, by the particularities of the performance itself as inscribed on the recording. In this way, the idea of the authentic expression, the grounded, the lone bluesman pouring out their soul on the porch, is mediated as soon as it is played, even as its image is reproduced in the recording, the presence only occurs in its absence.

This seems to prefigure what Reynolds draws from in Fisher and others, the reference he made during the lecture of music forming identity, heralding new worlds, all in a way opposing the old conception of music expressing an authentic “soul” or emotional bedrock, rather pointing to it as a locus of production, of the new. It’s not often here that I’ve referred back to the CCRU, partly as its already such an overbearing reference point in online theory circles, but the most interesting thing about that moment today I think is how it was tied together with a cultural one. Reynolds, when talking about it, will never fail to mention how the CCRU was practically inseparable from its musical influences in Jungle, seeing in the heightened, machine-gun proliferation of drum-hits made possible via new technological openings a kind of cultural blueprint for the ideas that would eventually become attached to the name accelerationism. Whatever value we attach to that label now, and whatever’s in a name [I myself became so frustrated with the online discourse around it a while ago that I instigated a clean break on this blog, not something I’d do again but not something I regret either], the presence of jungle in the 90s as a kind of supposed sign of things to come is a marker of the ambiguous power of music. It can be argued I think that even as the excitement of new electronic forms of music, of audio-technological possibilities opened up, that power of the new failed utterly to connect with the socio-political moment, in which Blair, Britpop and a reconstituted mashup of 60s references was the order of the day.

So even as we maintain that music has power, that it can indeed herald other worlds, new possibilities, utopias, we have to question the implications of this power, and hence the implication that music is somehow inherently revolutionary or a force for change. The power it holds is one that is tied up in the changes of the day both material and abstract. As Fisher often pointed out and Reynolds reiterated, there is an uncertainty and a seeming contradiction in the kind of “realism” we sometimes find in Hip-Hop, where at the same time as being at the forefront of a contemporary modernist impulse sonically, tends towards reinforcing capitalist realist tendencies in its lyrics and relations. This, when we look at jungle, seems to manifest in the simultaneous acceleration and deceleration that occurred at that time, and what we could perhaps now see as the disappointment of that moment, that the much-vaunted heightened abstraction of capital, the kind of accelerated ruptures to the outside heralded by the intersection of cyberpunk, jungle, Lovecraft and the other host of reference points the CCRU drew from, never materialised, the 2000s instead becoming dominated by the kind of flaccid indie-pop-rock continuum that couldn’t stand in greater contrast with the rhythmic psychedelia, as Kodwo Eshun dubbed it, of Jungle, and the possibilities it suggested.

That was 20ish years ago, and now we exist in the world which seems to be the fruit of that moment, not as a kind of vivid auto-destruction of capital, but a stasis of effect. Rather than a lurid eroticism of machines, a technological rupture, the future is that of google and facebook, the reterritorialised thrill of machinic abandon made manifest instead in the billionaire figure, the tech guru, the data manager around which we gather in worship. The underground promise of technological mutation promised through genres like jungle, and the much-mythologised moment of the CCRU, remained just that, a myth, a teleology some still cling to even while we live in its manifestation. This all paints a somewhat hopeless picture, and in fact I would hold that we shouldn’t shy away from, to some degree, acknowledging a certain degree of pessimism, an emotional air of failure, in the present, not only from the left, but from the counterculture, wherever that can be found.

The flipside to this is the questioning of purpose. Something I’ve come to realise is a certain turmoil of believing in, and committing to, an emancipatory politics and some kind of future. Especially in the current climate, outside influences make themselves known, voices consistently asking you “what’s the point?”, on some level you wonder if it wouldn’t all be easier if you gave up hope, simply threw in the towel and accepted perhaps that culture doesn’t mean anything, that there really isn’t any escaping. It is here that, speaking personally, but also as something of a justification for my interest in theories and politics of aesthetics and culture, culture, and in this instance especially music, holds open the door. The “heralding of worlds” enabled through pop music must be more than a simple ability to ignore the world as it is.

This is something that, especially given the somewhat archival nature of Reynold’s lecture, and my current reading on post-punk, appears not simply in some ineffable thought-realm, but on a spatio-temporal level. When I was discovering swathes of new sounds each presented to me a world with which I wasn’t familiar, a kind of fantastical apparition of the period from which it came. I referred previously on this blog to the Pop Group as appearing like a kind of transmission from elsewhere, and indeed a lot of the music I discovered felt the same way. Gayraud puts a large amount of emphasis on the development of recorded music, describing how recordings were in those early days sometimes treated with suspicion, how upon being played a recording of a song, the voice might be regarded as a spectre, something unnatural being brought back from the grave. This sense never truly goes away from recorded music, the particulars of each recording being inscribed technologically rather than dissipating with the singer/musician. On some level, the pop song, the recorded piece of music does give us a transmission from somewhere that no longer exists, or doesn’t exist here.

This is both the hope and the melancholy of pop, the moment that it promises something else while deferring it. Something Reynold’s referred to, specifically in conjunction with a song by “the Australian Beatles” the Easybeats, was this idea of “Utopia at the weekend” contained in their lyrics, the infinitely deferred promise of good times, without worry, always appearing as soon as they disappear. This is a conflict I’ve found within the form of songs repeatedly, whose sounds and forms encourage langour, enjoyment, dance, a kind of moment in which you are encouraged to remain… yet the song finishes, it can’t not, to lead onto the next. The euphoria always prefigures the downturn, the revolution is always tomorrow. Nonetheless the promise remains.

And what does the music writer have to do with all this? Is writing about music like dancing about architecture? No more than making music itself is like talking about paintings. That ridiculous canard should have been done away with a long time ago, not simply because its a case of “apples and oranges” but because it belies a constraint, a straight-jacket on music as well as writing, which assumes that one sphere simply lies apart from the other, that any imposition of writing or thought must necessarily lessen the impact, cheapen the music itself. I have to contest this on a personal level; I would never have, for instance, listened to the cracked ceramic majesty of the Associates Sulk had the presence of their music not been drawn up in such a compelling form in Reynold’s Rip it Up and Start Again, and in this instance it ceases to matter whether the writing itself resembles the form of the music, it was never about that, but the conjuring of its spirit, its emotional resonance in the listener.

This is, to tell the truth, what I objected to for so long in the music reviews I found in the guardian, which I encountered more regularly than any other paper, in which professional critics would time and again proceed to review from a supposed position of cynical distance, where they couldn’t be seen to be too invested, where even praise came with the insistent and mind-numbing implication of white-middle-class-cool heaped on top of it, as if I was being lectured by the frontman of the latest mediocre indie-rock outfit week after week. It is the bind of the man who simply grunts in response so as not to break his uncaring facade, the same that grips the hipster, the cool-police who stalk newspaper columns everywhere and deliver packaged and manufactured snide remarks on the latest pop single not because it has any bearing on anything, but because they need to make snide irreverent comments on something lest they lose their edge.

This form of criticism is an anathema to the power of music, it aims to lessen it, to dismiss it. Even what’s good is only so because you enjoy it, or because it fits a certain standard of irreverent cool to be a credibility-booster for the critic in question. The idea that music could in fact do something, that talking about it might be something more than recommending the best product for an audience, is laughed at, hit with the same insufferable hipster cool as everything else. In contrast to this, the best music writing, encapsulated for me in the past year in Ian Penman’s It Takes Me Home, This Winding Track, holds on, not to some artificial sincerity, but the weight of culture, the commitment to its power. To oppose the empty nostalgic commodification of Mod today is not simply an exasperated old man-ism, as if they “aren’t doing mod right” or something, but an acknowledgement of the wider implications, the nostalgia-porn for instance hanging around punk and, most bafflingly today, Britpop, isn’t simply something not to be liked, something distasteful, but a sign of something broader, something powerful.

The power of music remains an ambiguous one, to be handled with care and critically, but its existence is precisely why this critique is necessary, why despite the ineffability of sound, music and music culture deserve to be taken seriously. To not do so is to let this power bend to others, to give up the ghost, to leave music at the whims of the hipster critic is to leave it to the whims of political change. If we are to accept, as we should have realised long ago on the left, that politics operates through emotional means far before it does analytic ones, then the emotional pull of culture, the establishing of its power, has its part to play. By saying this, I don’t want to insinuate a call for some kind of “left culture offensive” in the manner of Red Wedge or Grime 4 Corbyn, both of which not only failed but subscribe to the logic that only explicit political messaging and content matters. Rather, it is for a re-alignment of how we criticise, talk about, address music. We need to assume that it matters regardless of content, that the future of music has something to offer, and that the dream of a re-invented structure of feeling presented by the history of its form still lives on, in whatever form this may take.

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The Great Immobiliser

“Social media is bad and it’s ruining your attention spans” right? Done, nothing more to be written, the topic has been roundly tied off and thrown into a ditch. We may laugh or sigh at such proclamations by this point, so often are they wheeled out, often with the air of “when I was younger we used to go outside, things were so much better then” God, we know already, get off our backs. Because warnings about the addictiveness of social media tend to come with a side-order of finger wagging and moralising, indifference seems to be the widespread response, like kids ignoring the advice of a teacher because, well, it just isn’t cool to care.

Indeed, we can’t exactly just roll back the project, undo what has become such an integral part of people’s lives by this point. In many ways social media is now baked into the way many of us experience not just the internet, but life. We are told if we want to increase our publicity, we need a social media outlet, social media manager is not an uncommon position, and most events and get-togethers are now organised through the social media channels specifically designed for that purpose. While we could just sign off entirely and consign ourselves to more old-fashioned ways of organisation and information dissemination, there’s a distinct sense, and it’s not entirely unjustified, that by doing so we are losing out on a useful tool. Indeed, the only reason I still have a facebook account, when it comes down to it, is it’s usefulness in a communication and information capacity.

And if this is where it finished, as a tool, social media wouldn’t really be an issue. Indeed, was this not the primary purpose of social media, as something useful, a way to keep in touch with people, a tool to augment life… the issue is where we cross the boundary from an augmented reality towards a virtual one; we find ourselves in a rhythmic limbo of notifications, auto-playing videos, vaguely “relatable” status updates, quibbling, nitpicking, self-aggrandisement..

I myself was lead to write this after spending about half an hour browsing Facebook before realising I hadn’t really seen anything interesting in all that time. It was the anticipation of seeing something interesting that drove me, the expectation that something might happen, against the odds. I had just been sitting there scrolling through nothing, and it struck me how this is precisely where Facebook, Twitter et al want you, sitting there motionless scrolling through a small rectangle, willingly or unwillingly falling into an experience of pure banality. Completely immobilised. We begin craving the small dopamine rush of receiving a notification and so we continuously check, a fear that something might have happened while we were looking in the other direction. It is, as cliched as this might seem, a form of addiction, one that can be extremely difficult to kick, removal from the matrix leading to a constant twinge to pick up the phone, log in, check once more, one more click. 

There was a Facebook advertising campaign, I’m not sure if its still running, called “Let’s Get to Work”, featuring a montage of people going about a variety of jobs; butcher, barber, candestickmaker, you get the jist, and I remember first seeing the ad in a cinema and openly laughing when the Facebook logo appeared at the end. It was a similar [if not quite as strong] surreal disconnect I noticed in that infamous Sainsbury’s Christmas advert clumsily welding their logo into the end of a tearjerking and well made short about the first world war. We have footage which over-bearingly signals that this is genuine, real, and that you, your small business, your life, is at the heart of it, and then a logo is imposed onto this footage of a company we know has no such concerns. Not only this, but the genuine-ness signalled in the advert is starkly at odds with the unprecedented levels of facade we encounter on the platform itself. 

Facebook had pulled that old advertising trick of trying to convince you that they are the exact opposite of what they represent, something they are pulling again in the wake of data scandals and evidence of their untrustworthiness by trying to convince us that we’re in safe hands, that there’s nothing to worry about. What this particular campaign, maybe unintentionally, put across to me however was a conflation between the reality being shown and the reality we encounter on Facebook, as if one was the equivalent or the same as the other. In showing nobody within the advert actually using the platform, no hints of information technology at all in fact before unveiling the logo at the conclusion, the advert seems to engage in a kind of bait and switch, leading us down one path and at the last second pushing us back in the opposite direction.

Social media relies on this confusion, a contradiction between the fake and the genuine, the direct and the distant, until we dull our ability to distinguish, between fake-genuine and genuine-fake. When one refers to Baudrillard’s popular term Hyperreality in regard to social media, many might assume what’s being talked about is social media as a wholly alternative reality, something you plug into the back of your head and phase into. If it were that simple. What we have is the ultimate development in postmodern condition, the next step in the great immobilisation. Think of politics, and the endless spats, call-outs, and arguments that constitute its  presence on social media. To put it bluntly, if people are busy quibbling endlessly online, they aren’t organising, and if you’re spending hours scrolling through vapid newsfeed posts, you’re not doing something constructive, but we see these things somehow as constructive themselves, we begin to find the distinction dissolving between uses of time, between interactions, the very fabric of reality becomes a digital smokescreen. We look at the world and only see something to post online, something to further our digital augmentation. Social media hasn’t simply become a reality in-itself as much as reality itself.