Categories
Music

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

Categories
Capitalism Music

The Positivity Injunction

I lose count of the times I’ve heard someone claim they don’t like a piece of music or a film because it’s “too depressing”. What this means I have yet to find out, but I’ve become aware over the years that it seems to apply overwhelmingly to a lot of my own cultural library, and so tend to be somewhat irritated upon hearing it, even if directed at something that I myself am not terribly keen on. The implication here is clear, all that is not positive begone, we have no need for your emiserating antics.

This attitude is something that has taken its place at the opposite end from the apparent doom-mongers and naysayers, the party-poopers and orgy-ruiners of the world who just want to ruin everyone elses good time. You must be fun at parties goes the line as if being fun at parties was some kind of marker of good humour, as if so many of us were plunging ourselves into a hedonic haze and careening through muddy fields on amphetamines because we’re just so fun to be around. Put away that book it might make you depressed… copious levels of alcohol on the other hand…

To be clear I’m not anti-pleasure and I don’t want to come across as some puritan finger-wagging priest delivering a moral sermon, in fact quite the opposite.. what I want to point out is that it is this positivity injunction which itself functions in this way, denouncing any of us who dare criticize what we are supposed to enjoy. Picture a scene where a group are discussing a fast food outlet. Going around the room they can’t get over how amazing these burgers are, and the superlatives are flowing. Then it gets to you. You… don’t really think much of the place and you have a few words to say on it, so you say so. Silence. Everyone kind of looks at you strangely before someone says “yeahhh but it’s really good isn’t it” the conversation continues as if you had not spoken. Say on top of this your reason had to do primarily with the way the fast food outlet functioned, marketed its food, or produced it. Here, the injunction to be positive becomes an injunction to stay silent and conform. All the keep-calm-carry-on mugs and tea-towels in the world seem to be saying “Pipe down and let us have our fun”.

This all seems to point towards a refusal to think beyond the pleasure principle. Mark Fisher describes something in Capitalist Realism he terms as “Depressive Hedonia”; where depression is generally held as the inability to find pleasure in anything, what we find in Depressive Hedonia is the inability to do anything besides the pursuit of pleasure. Specifically given the breakdown of certain structures within education, the lack of resources or content, students will often find themselves sitting in their rooms getting high consuming entertainment because there’s nothing of interest to do… anything that is not connected to pleasure strikes us as worthless, something we’d have to really force ourselves into. This is connected in my mind to the positivity injunction, something that can be found just as much in the anxious and depressed communities of students as it can people “climbing the job ladder” and in the world of business. Among people my own age and younger however, there seems increasingly to be this attitude that if you are critical of something that provides us FUN then you are de facto ANTI-FUN. You’re slapped with a sticker that announces to everyone that you’re some miserable stick-in-the-mud, you have no time for the good life.

In my own experience this has emerged through my disdain for festivals. I was somewhat excited by the idea of the festival when I was younger for the novelty aspect, but gradually it becomes increasingly evident that festivals are where punk comes to die, events of staggering cultural emptiness predicated on the idea that nobody who goes to them actually cares, or will be too off their face to care, about what’s actually going on there. Even essential or exciting acts are drained of potency in the open fields, the whole sorry affair being a muddy slice of flabby carnivalesque bourgeois boredom alleviation designed not as a cultural event but a way to forget. Just camp out in a muddy field, take some drugs, forget about everything and enjoy Foster the People won’t you? The headline acts are often non-acts, non-culture, Marc Auge’s non-places in the form of bands, an airport waiting area on a musical stage, going through the motions of performance but having given up any attempt to carve out anything beyond a flat, meaningless success in a continuum of similitude. At it’s worst the festival is in fact a cavalcade of awkward nostalgia, the geriatric rolling stones still desperately pulling the same old shit despite the valorisation of youth suiting them now like… well like leather trousers on an elderly Mick Jagger. When did anything of any import really happen at a festival?

Well, suffice to say I don’t really think much of the festival environment, predicated as it us on the reduction of culture to museum, even worse, to a kind of repeating wallpaper design in front of which we drool over the settee in a ketamine haze. I’ve found this however a notably unpopular thing to say, the enjoyment of festivals being taken as something of a necessary, why WOULDN’T you enjoy this, you puritan.. the expectation here is that we just draw our mouths into a grotesque smile and just get down with everyone else. Hedonism here can be taken as some kind of Bataillean limit experience, the thing that provides the rest of our mundane lives with some exit, an outside where we don’t have to worry about paying the rent. As soon as we take those amphetamines or drink those beers, we enter a headspace away from all that miserable shit, all that politics, the boring stuff. It is like some kind of transcendental move, a heavenly experience … is it any surprise that festivals have become intertwined often with a kind of typical new age mysticism, the kind of religion where we can engage in its practices while simultaneously feeling above them.

And so the positivity injunction is a call to accept this state, to simple go ahead and dope yourself up, become numb to the world for a few days, accept mediocrity, accept the state of affairs as long as you can purge it temporarily, accept the endless waiting room, the repetition, the cultural logic of late capitalism, it’s all worth it for this moment of transcendent bliss, knocking down a few pints in a miserable field of desperate people on a cocktail of drugs and believing wholeheartedly that this is the best life will offer us. In this way the festival, and the positivity injunction itself, becomes a stagnant river, heaving with waste. It is the place where culture comes to a standstill, repeats itself due to the lack of will to accept anything could be better. Judgement, negativity is the ultimate sin, surely you can accept that all eras have their bad parts, nothing is inherently worse about now … except it is, there is an air of deprivation, and as much as we may hope against all hopes that really this is just how things are and it’s just different, no worse or better, there are concrete political reasons for this negativity.

The consistent dismantling of social security, the demonization of the unemployed & the working classes, the lack of cultural urgency [brought on non insignificantly by our subsistence on a diet of cyberculture and connectivity, the strange temporal effects of having access to a seemingly endless and overwhelming stream of data, described by Franco “Bifo” Berardi as Overload]. We have more than sufficient reason to be pissed off, and it’s about time to draw a line under this kind of forced positive attitude. Culture is more than entertainment, and as long as we insist that the only recourse we have is to a hedonistic escape from this earthly domain, we continue to reinforce the hegemony of Capitalist Realism and neoliberal theology. What we need is not some kind of neo-spiritual affirmative love-solves-all positive oppressive injunction, but a renewed sense that this is not all we can muster. We have a lot to care about, and if we didn’t care we wouldn’t spend all this time trying to suppress it; dare to think beyond the pleasure principle, and maybe we can build new forms of collectivity.

Categories
Current Affairs

The Stare of Empty Bliss

Theresa May, summoning each swiftly waning digit of strength as her government continues careening into the abyss, and with no small degree of sheer gall, spoke recently at a “youth violence summit” about the need to tackle violent crime amongst young people.

“We cannot simply arrest ourselves out of this problem”

Indeed, we cannot, but even if we could in some absurd counter-reality, it’s hardly as if the Police have the resources to undergo such a task in the first place. In this conservative governments attempts to appear to have a hold of itself it only appears more and more out of sync, the words spoken gradually slipping into a spacio-temporal disconnect with the world around them. We cannot arrest ourselves out of it .. so clearly the blame is to be placed on those working in public services, already under hideous strain and threat of redundancy under further cuts, to somehow “spot the signs” of violent crime amidst the youth in their purview.

The grotesque contortions of these suggestions are compounded by the routine denunciations of culpability; of course we have nothing to do with it. Of course, neither the full bombardment of police forces or the watchful eye of public service workers will do anything; at least, for all the lip service to adressing the “causes” any actual addressing of cause is what is notably absent from the whole discussion. In placing the focus on a purported duty to report crime what the government is doing here is attempting to depoliticize it, to remove from the realm of possibility any hint that a rise in crime may be connected to a rise in poverty and dispossession, of precarity and homelessness.

The irony here is that what May is suggesting is simply another way of trying to arrest our way out of the problem. She and her cabinet likely know full well that addressing violent crime, crime of any stripe for that matter, requires addressing the socio-political issues that birth it, but to do so is simply beyond their political programming. The wasted remains of the neoliberal terminator still slowly drags itself across the blasted sands, unaware at this stage of its lost functionality, its state of comatose denial. Crime, like terrorism, must time and time be reduced to transcendential causes. When Donald Trump made that comment, about good people with guns stopping bad people with guns, he vocalised without the double entendres and politesse of neoliberalism exactly what it implies with its approach to such issues; that people do bad things because they are bad. This worrying rise in violent crime amongst young people, it must just be because they simply aren’t behaving properly, or we aren’t disciplining them properly.

The cause is left mystified, in a haze of infinite distraction. It must all be reduced to some kind of problem related to moral character or strength of will. Some people just want to watch the world burn … some just want to earn a living. It has become obvious in most quarters that we exist now in some strange state of transition, that the putrescent moderation of the past decades has fallen into disrepute … and yet it continues. Despite everything, in the conservative government, in the rather amusingly limp posturing of the newly minted replicants of the “new centrists”, in the neoliberal bastions over in europe, institutions remain locked in a dystopian fantasy land where business and markets dominate our consciousness and will do for the foreseeable future.

This stare of empty bliss is nothing however if it is not an opportunity for the left to take action. We don’t have to acquiesce and we don’t have to rely on the glimmer of hope, but if we cannot in the twilight of the doddering clowns of westminster seize onto a newfound confidence, then we have some way yet to go.