APOPALYPSE NOW - the state and stasis of pop
GQ Style spring/summer 2008
by Simon Reynolds
Come Christmas time, music magazines and newspaper critics traditionally survey the trends and events that shook the pop world during the previous 12 months. Late last year, as the time approached for the annual reckoning, I found myself wondering: what on earth are they going to come up with for 2007? I mean, did anything actually happen? Hmmm, well there was Radiohead’s gambit of selling their latest album direct to the fans via honour-based pay-what-you-think-it’s-worth download. But that was a breakthrough in music distribution, not a dive into brave new worlds of sound (indeed In Rainbows’s Radiohead-by-numbers could hardly have been more same-old-same-old, more déjà entendu). What else? There was Britney’s meltdown, a convulsion in celebreality that far eclipsed the schizo-jagged avant-pop of her Blackout, a relative flop sales-wise. But when it comes to big shifts and new directions… 2007’s pop cupboard was bare.
Indeed, looking back on the whole decade so far, the Noughties has had a ‘fallow years’, holding-pattern feel. Writer and musician Momus, an acerbic culture-watcher, recently declared that pop was one of several things he regarded as essentially ‘over’ (others included television, the telephone and democracy). Me and Momus are roughly the same age (forties), and everyone knows that as you get older, it’s harder to perceive newness in music. Partly it’s because the more knowledge you acquire, the more you can see how everything is precedented. And partly there’s an element of projecting your own decrepitude onto the culture at large.
Pundits have been casting around with palpable desperation for explanations, with some pointing to the lack of mutual exchange between black and white music, and others pointing to a congealing of class divisions that’s caused music to speak only to its own narrow social niche and accordingly lack adventure or disruption. Both these diagnoses have the ring of partial truth, but there’s something else going on; something that’s unaccountable and even slightly mystical, in the sense that it feels apocalyptic. Except that it’s the whimper-not-a-bang version of the end of history, a relapse into lameness and inertia. One manifestation of the slowing-down sensation that Finney observed is the way that 2007 didn’t feel that different from 2006, or even 2003. Whereas in the surge-phases of pop history, the differences between years – between 1967 and 1968, or 1978 and 1979 – felt huge.
How would one go about measuring the rate of innovation? This is culture we’re dealing with, not science; the slippery, soft data of perceptions. One method might be look at genre formation – the arrival of new sounds, scenes, subcultures, of the sort that are generally accepted as a New Thing even by people who dislike the music. The Sixties gave us the beat group explosion (white R&B Brits such as The Beatles, Stones, Kinks), along with folk rock, psychedelia, soul, ska. Arguably even more fertile, the Seventies spawned glam, prog, metal, funk, punk, roots reggae and dub, disco and more. The Eighties maintained the pace with the arrival of rap, synthpop, goth, house music, indie, dancehall. The Nineties saw rave culture and its spiralling profusion of subgenres jostling for supremacy with grunge, while hip hop’s continued full-tilt evolution led to the nu-R&B of Timbaland and all who followed (including the UK’s 2-step garage explosion). Across these first four decades of pop, added bustle came from the endless revivalisms that found new life in styles that had been prematurely abandoned as pop hurtled relentlessly forward into the future. Some of these seemingly backward-looking movements – 2 Tone, for instance – became significant and ‘current’ in ways that transcended retro-pastiche.
So how does this decade measure up? What genres emerged that can be construed as genuinely new? Even the most generous assessment of Noughties pop must surely conclude that the majority have either been minor developments within established genres (eg emo, a melodic and melodramatic form of punk) or they’ve been archive-raiding recombinant forms (electroclash, freak-folk, neo-postpunk, and last year’s nu-rave debacle). Grime and dubstep are exciting sounds but they are contained explosions within a longstanding and settled post-rave tradition centred on London’s pirate radio scene. The longer-established genres, meanwhile, seem to have hit a synchronised rut: rock continues to graverob its own maggoty past, hip hop is stuck on an audio-video treadmill of gangsta bling and scanty-clad booty, and electronic dance putters through micro-trends that on close inspection turn out to be mere recyclings of Nineties ideas.
So has everybody really run out of ideas, simultaneously? And if so, why? It could be that we are witnessing the music-cultural equivalent of an ecological crisis, the finite resources of pop’s possibility as an arena having been mined to exhaustion. (Finite, perhaps, until some new technology of extraction – sonic or pharmacological – is invented.) Another possibility is that music has simply been eclipsed by other forms of entertainment (game culture, for instance) and no longer attracts the brightest minds. I’m not 100 per cent convinced: the innately musical will always feel the pull of that particular art form. Then again, pop has always been a hybrid form as much to do with lyrics, persona and visuals as with sound alone; it is often pushed forward by conceptualist non-musicians. If pop’s preeminence in the culture is slipping, a vicious circle will set in of declining prestige followed by a decreased intake of lively minds, on and on in ever-depleting cycles.
There’s another question to ask, though. Why does it matter so much that pop music be in constant motion? There does seem to be a special pressure, a historical burden, on pop that doesn’t apply to other art forms. Experimental fiction, for instance, is a tiny ghetto within quality literature; editors, critics and readers don’t anxiously wait for the next James Joyce or Alain Robbe-Grillet, they’re looking for individual voices that bring something relatively fresh to the novel, while by and large adhering to the traditional values of narrative and naturalism, deftly drawn characters and dialogue.
At a certain point, the idea of the vanguard seems to have lodged itself in rock culture, persisting there long after other art forms had pensioned it off or problematised it. Modernism – the belief that art has some kind of inherent evolutionary destiny, a teleology that manifests itself through genius artists and masterpieces that are ‘monuments to the future’ – filtered into rock in large part thanks to the sheer number of art-school alumni who formed bands. Perhaps, above all, it’s the Beatles (whose ranks included art-school kid John Lennon) who are to blame. Their astonishing run of creative growth – that four-year sprint from Rubber Soul to the White Album – set the bar impossibly high for everybody who came after, although musicians from Talking Heads to Radiohead did their damnedest to match it.
Beyond just pop music, it’s the Sixties as an entire epoch that contributes to the current sense of stasis. On every front of culture – architecture, fashion, art, movies, sexuality, et al – that decade was the era of the neophiliac. That’s conservative critic Christopher Booker’s term for the Sixties mania for all things innovative and tradition-violating. It is because the Sixties moved so fast that we judge today’s sluggishness and nostalgia so harshly. Yet in a hideous irony, the 1960s are also the major generative force behind retro culture. Through its hold on our imagination, its charisma as a period, the decade that constituted arguably the greatest eruption of new-ness in the entire 20th century has turned into its opposite. Neophilia becomes necrophilia.
It’s as if we can’t get past this past. Hence the endless Beatles/Stones/Dylan covers on magazines such as Mojo and Uncut, the interminable repackaging of babyboomer music, the steady stream of biopics and rock documentaries. Hence also the young bands picking at the already-ravaged carcass of that era. You can’t blame them, in a way. Rock at that time had a quality of happening-for-the-first-time freshness; it also felt like a force for change. When young musicians today, like the bearded troubadours and minstrel maidens of freak-folk – Joanna Newsom, Devendra Banhart, Animal Collective – hark back to the Incredible String Band and Jefferson Airplane, there is a poignancy to the impulse – a yearning to restore to music the importance and power it seemingly enjoyed in that belle époque.
Perhaps, though, it’s high time to lay the Sixties to rest, along with all its over-investments in music’s power and excessive expectations for pop to be a non-stop rollercoaster of change. Our belief in progress in general has been shaken badly recently – by the resurgence of faith-based fundamentalisms, by global warming, by reports that social and racial divisions are deteriorating rather than improving. If everything else feels like it’s gone into reverse, how could poor old pop be immune?
Perhaps that’s why a different notion of music is taking hold: not as the endlessly recharged shock of the new, but as a force for continuity, a foundation of stability in a precarious world. From dubstep to the new folk, a lot of today’s most rewarding music is based around the durability of tradition and the strength of folk memory. Iconoclasm and innovation have been supplanted by veneration and renovation – the role of the artist is to make small but significant tweaks to long-established forms. Interestingly, both ideas of the role of art were active in the Sixties. Simultaneous with the impulse to voyage into the cosmic beyond and to experiment with technology (amplification, the recording studio, effects), ideas also circulated of going back (to childhood, or to simpler, rural ways of life – ‘getting your head together in the country’), and a reverent investigation of traditional forms of American and British music was undertaken by everyone from Dylan to Fairport Convention.
As a diehard futurist who grew up during a period of full-tilt innovation (postpunk) while also feeling an intense attraction to the 1960s, I’d find it a real struggle to jettison my belief in change as pop’s core imperative. The future-rush of hearing music that seems to come out of nowhere is addictive. To give it up would not just be difficult, it would feel like a capitulation – learning to settle for less. But maybe we were all hoodwinked by a historical aberration, a freak period of cultural tumult that was really a side-effect of the economic boom and technological surge of the post-war period. Rather than viewing history in terms of striding boldly into the future, perhaps it’s more realistic to see it as something that moves forward in stumbling fashion, with meandering digressions, pauses, and retracings of footsteps. Certainly, there is little in current music that could sustain the faith in pop as a vanguard. Today there is no cutting edge, just music: lots of music, too much maybe, some of which feels like a vigorous if slight twist on the familiar (Arctic Monkeys, say), and a far smaller ‘some’ that glitters like the proverbial new thing under the sun.
Yet there’s a further scenario that is worth considering, in which innovation is not so much over and done with as a ball that’s out of our court. Perhaps it is only the West (in pop terms, the Anglo-American pop/rock tradition) that is fatigued. Perhaps the Next Big Thing will come, finally, from Asia or the Southern Hemisphere. After all, China and India are set to be the economic/demographic powerhouses of this century, and paradoxically these most ancient cultures feel ‘younger’ than ours at the moment. Ironically, that’s because, in a sense, they’re still in the mid-20th century: the era of rampant industrialisation, of hubris-laden state initiatives like massive dam projects (China is even embarking on its own space missions, with other Asian countries soon to follow).
It’s more than likely that the over-driven economic metabolisms of these mega nations, in tandem with the social rifts and tensions caused by uneven distribution of wealth and uncontrolled rates of change, will generate all manner of interesting cultural and sub-cultural phenomena. Perhaps it’s simply time for the West to… rest. For a bit.