THE BNF DEFICIT
from Unfaves 2001, Blissout
by Simon Reynolds
The greater part of the work being done today--musically, critically -- strikes me as gap-filling. A band like Clinic, for instance, have found this tiny strip of terrain to call their own, a thin patch of sonic possibility bordered on every side by precursors who enjoyed much more room to manoevre. Now, you might feel inclined to lend Clinic your support, praise them for doing the best they can in a tricky predicament. Or you might feel inclined to turn away with a soft sad shake of the head, wondering how people can get worked up over such miniscule increments of novelty.
It's probably a generational thing: if you came of age in an era of Giant Steps and Bold New Formulations (BNFs), the present age with its micro-genres and Next Medium-Sized Things is going to be increasingly frustrating. People born after, say, 1977, of necessity have grown up with a more detail-oriented appreciation of smaller measures of innovation and idiosyncracy. One thing's clear: whoever comes in the wake of Clinic will have an even more circumscribed space in which to operate.
The same syndrome applies to ideas-about-music. When was the last BNF? By my count, nearly five years ago, with Kodwo Eshun's More Brilliant Than The Sun. Before that you'd have to go back to the turn of the Nineties, and Joe Carducci's Rock and the Pop Narcotic. Before that, the approach and sensibility hatched by Chuck Eddy and Frank Kogan in the late Eighties. Before that, the BNF's start coming too thick and fast to enumerate. This suggests that thinking-about-music parallels music-making: a sort of thermodynamic model that starts with a Big Bang and a flaming surge of creation, Giant Steps and BNF's galore. The possibilities for formal breakthroughs and striking Thought-Stances get progressively used up as time goes by, though. It's getting mighty crowded out there: more and more folk chasing smaller and smaller options. From galaxies to solar systems, from planets to space-dust.
The non-appearance of BNFs isn't due to a deficit of capability (there's more than enough brain-power out there). Is it just a lack of will-to-power and sheer determination, then? Or are people simply no longer interested in making that kind of totalizing macro-approach, find it unseemly or naff or just uncalled-for nowadays (these times of smaller shifts and evolution-not-revolution). Perhaps it's simply that there's nothing around musically/subculturally that would warrant and justify such an effort (with all its risks of making a fool of yourself).
For there's a grandiosity to the BNF; unconsciously, perhaps, the formulator is asking for the edifice to be torn down, its unsound foundations exposed. All BNF's are lopsided, and some are more wrong than right. But I can't help but admire the determination and guts that go into their construction, appreciate the starkness of intellectual contour. A prime example is More Brilliant Than The Sun, much of which I disagree with but which I can only salute as a heroic contribution to the, erm, dialectic. As with Carducci's BNF (whose premises I ultimately reject) the sheer contentiousness of More Brilliant is hugely valuable and galvanizing---responding to its challenges has sharpened up my own thinking no end.
It is disheartening that in five years since its publication, no one, to my knowledge, in the English-speaking world has mustered the resources of hubris and gall to attempt something of similar scope and ambition.
BNFs tend not be genial things, of course. There's an aggressive aspect, a tyrannical impulse (this sort of book is often praised along the lines of "it will change the way you think about XXX forever", which, if you think about it, is a rather despotic ambition: a putsch on people's minds!). The formulator usually wishes, implicitly or explicitly, to invalidate all other ways of looking at stuff. And every BNF becomes a set of blinkers, blinding its creator to new possibilities, unforeseen pleasures, unexpected shifts; the cardinal blunder of looking in the same place for your rapture/rupture. Pop music's protean on-rush will always outwit, outflank, outmode every BNF, leave this monument of thought standing there looking slightly ludicrous; stranded, no longer applicable to the new conditions.
Perhaps we are better off without BNFs, better off finding more affable, humble, non-polarising ways of looking at pop. As someone who gets off on messianic fervour, though, I can't help finding this kind of unassuming approach ultimately lacking some vital buzz-factor: it's too mild in temperament and temperature. Where's the fiyah?