Sunday, April 28, 2013

REVOLT INTO STYLE: POLITICS AND POP, mini-thinkpiece
Melody Maker, August 28th 1993

by Simon Reynolds


For a bliss-rocker like myself, the resurrection of agit-pop is a right turn up for the books. And it isn’t actually that easy to explain. Sure, socio-economically, we’re heading further up shit creek every day. But deterioration, immiseration and crisis have been the way of things since… since I was a nipper, actually. And for the last six years, pop culture’s response has been largely escapist (rave, slackerdelia, dreampop). So why--now--the return of agit-pop?

Perhaps people have simply been pushed too far, to the end of their tether. I don’t believe the current wave of agit-rockers has evaded the inherent problems of politics and pop any more successfully than, say, Gang of Four or The Redskins did. But even if they are just “preaching to the converted”, even if their audience are merely consumers of radical meanings, the very fact that consumer demand for “edutainment” has resurged is significant. Feelings of disconnection and impotence are so pervasive that people want to feel less isolated and find it cathartic (in an almost therapeutic way) to see anger and frustration acted out on stage or on record. There’s also a sense in which the apolitical rock that’s ruled the rock for so long has driven itself into a dead; rock culture needs to renew itself, and re-engaging with “reality” is one way to do that.

But, as I say, the contradictions of political rock, of protest in an entertainment context, remain unresolved. What do slogans actually achieve, apart from degrading language, and providing the warm, glowing feeling that comes from having one’s own convictions confirmed? For me, there’s a crucial difference between “political” (all music is political--even Slowdive--in that it involves choices and values) and the overtly “politicized”.

In terms of thought-provocation, I find more “politics” in the turmoil of contradictions of a PJ Harvey or the incoherence of Nirvana than in the plain-speaking, tell-it-like-it-is of Blaggers ITA, Rage Against the Machine, et al. And the utterly non-PC gangsta rap of Cypress Hill or Onyx--rage that offers no solutions or redemptive vision--tells you more about the state of Black America than the didacto-rap of KRS-1 or Hiphoprisy.

Consolidated trailblazed the revival of agit-pop: they grappled with its contradictions with a hyper-aware ferocity that puts the current wave to shame. But, to my mind, they foundered on those contradictions. Their first LP, The Myth of Rock, was totally invigorating, simply because its militancy was so virulently opposed to the dozy, hazy apathy of rock in 1991. The sequel, Friendly Fascism, was a precarious affair, with some blasting tracks but others that were just lectures over a beat. The last album was unlistenable and self-parodic.

The trouble with politicized rock is that the proselytizing impulse almost invariably goes hand-in-hand with a contempt for the aesthetic: music is only a means to an end. Look at Manic Street Preachers, who also trailblazed the resurrection of combat rock. Their desperation to get those supposedly crucial lyrics (actually a turgid, anti-poetic mish-mash of slogans from which I glean nothing--no illumination, no emotional response) into mass consciousness has led them to ape Bon Jovi’s quaint, lite-metal anthems.

As a movement, Riot Grrl has massive resonance and ramifications, but musically it’s had the effect of subordinating the music to the message: hence the staid, tomboy quality of Bikini Kill’s sound. The UK chapter, Huggy Nation, is more ambitious, and at least likes the idea of pushing the sonic envelope, but its doctrinaire rejection of virtuosity cripples that impulse.

So the perennial paradox endures: the most aesthetically adventurous music being made today is just--purely aesthetic, art for art’s, headfuck for headfuck’s sake. Ambient techno, the UK post-MBV fringe (shoegazing’s smarter sister), the US lo-fi bands--all are music that sounds great but “says” nothing. The US post-Pavement bands are a new kind of prog rock or jazz-rock (fission rather than fusion). Truman’s Water may be lo-fi, but their unusual time signatures, schizo-eclectic song structures and gibberish lyrics are pure prog. Most of the interesting music being made today is heading towards the state of the instrumental, all texture and no text.

Ambient dub-techno has already reached that point of pure muso-dom. It’s music as drug (or as adjunct to drug-taking), and its ascendancy shows that many people’s response to a strife-torn intolerable world is to seek asylum. Ambient is psychedelia, warped by Nineties retreatism, a desire to exile oneself from History. Whereas the agit-pop bands want to reconnect rock and history.

There are bands who combine radical form and radical content (although usually they’re more about personal politics), bands like Pram and Moonshake, who have revived the spirit of ’79 (PiL, the Raincoats, Gang of Four). But this avant-rock sector is probably too abstruse to win a mass audience; it doesn’t offer the satisfyingly simplistic, crude catharsis of your Rages. So, for the moment, aesthetic revolution and political radicalism remain uneasy bedfellows.

Perhaps agit-poppers devote so much time to rhetoric that they have none left for raising the aesthetic stakes? And yet agit-pop doesn’t need to sound trad to be populist (remember Public Enemy?). For now, though, we’re still waiting for that dream fusion of challenging form and confrontational content.

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