Monday, June 3, 2013
by Simon Reynolds
The other day, I decided to finally clear the backlog. As a rock critic, music floods through my doors; some 100 + CD's had accrued over the course of a year, items
I'd never had a chance to play, but had held onto because they looked intriguing.
I thought it would be easy to whizz through, sample a few tracks from each and
cast the bulk of 'em out; I think of myself as pretty merciless when it comes to aesthetic adjudication, someone who doesn't suffer mediocrity lightly. Five hours later, with throbbing ears and aching back, and with two-thirds of the pile still unplayed, I was dismayed by how much stuff seemed 'good', how little was capable of being instantly dismissed. Glumly, I came to a conclusion that's been lurking at the back of my mind for five or six years: that there is simply too much 'valid' music being made for the world to handle. We're drowning, deluged by pernicious adequacy, and as we go under we experience a peculiar new emotion--the boredom of sheer abundance.
One example out of countless: "Paths, Prints" is one of my favourite albums,
but I swear that fucker Jan Garbarek releases some new solo LP or collaboration
on ECM every three months. How much piercing, plangent, dawn-rising-over-the-
fjords beauty can one human being absorb?
Faced with the MUSIC OVERLOAD, you can respond in two ways: by struggling to
keep up with all the diversity on offer, or by narrowing your aural horizons,
focussing on one obsession. You can either be a generalist or (to coin a ghastly
word) a genre-ist.
Generalists tend to be populists, they believe that the music that matters
is the stuff that leaves the ghetto of a particular style and commands the common
ground. Genre-ists, by comparison, have come to terms with the postmodern idea
that we live in a culture of margins orbiting a collapsed centre. In rock
terms, this means that the era of Big Figures who allegedly Speak For Us All, i.e
the Dylans, Lennons, Springsteens etc, is over and dead; that this is the age of
genres--thrash-metal, industrial, ambient techno, lo-fi, G-funk, swingbeat, trip
hop, ad infinitum--styles that speak only to their own. Moreover, genres
have an innate tendency to fragment still further (there's already at least three
sub-genres of thrash, four sub-styles of jungle, and so on), with the result that
the "we" that each style/scene addresses gets smaller and smaller.
These days, rock that purports to speak for Everybody-bands like U2, REM,
Pearl Jam--is just a genre itself, one among many. Call it 'classic rock', in so
far as it's steeped in the same late '60s and early '70s values as the music
played on classic rock radio, and because when classic rock stations add
contemporary bands to their playlists it's always only Bands Who Say Something
(like Pearl Jam, U2, REM etc).
If you're a genre-ist, though, you don't care a fig for some bygone and
probably mythical Unity that rock bands were once supposed to marshal into being.
You like the specificity, the genre-icity, of the style you're into (the
lo-fi-ness of lo-fi, the junglism of jungle), not its potential to transcend its
local audience and reach out to the mass. You dig the fact that it speaks an
idiolect (a specialist language, a tribal slang). Artists from a particular scene
who attempt to translate its idiom into mass-speak--Moby with techno, Trent
Reznor with industrial--are therefore treated with suspicion by the genre-ists.
By definition, they're not cutting edge, because the edge is what's always pushing the style further out from universality.
Personally, I'm in an odd, unenviable predicament: I believe that
the most interesting music is usually made by genre-extremists as opposed to
crossover artists. But I can see the point of too many genres, I want to cream off the
best each has to offer. Then there's the universe of music outside rock and dance..., jazz, classical, Javanese Gamelan, Mongolian throat-singing, musique concrete, space age bachelor pad music-- a legion of genres seem to glare at me reproachfully, beseeching: 'check me out, I've got something to give!' These days, I feel a weird relief when I discover a genre that I simply can't see the point of, like thrash-metal or the New Country. In the age of cultural overload, the invention of new prejudices , the erection of boundaries and barriers, is vital to one's mental health.
But such bigotries offer only slight relief, because the wealth of the past
is beckoning, thanks to the CD reissue explosion, and its knock-on effect, the
glut of used vinyl. So many eras, so many styles to check out: Southern boogie,
Krautrock, mid-70s dub, Sixties garage punk, '70s UK folk-rock.... Each could
easily absorb a lifetime's worth of obsessiveness. Which brings me to another
realisation: how I'd hate to be 16 now and getting into music for the first time.
Not only would you have the contemporary deluge to filter, you'd have to catch up
with the past. Let's say that approximately the same amount of great music is
produced each year (averaging out the fluctuations within specific genres); that
means that each new year's harvest of brilliance must compete with the past's
ever more mountainous heap of greatness. How many records released in 1995 are gonna be as worthwhile an acquisition, for that hypothetical 16 year old, as Van Morrison's "Astral Weeks"?
For a rock critic, the problematic of TOO MUCH MUSIC is an occupational
hazard. But sometimes I wonder if it'd would actually be much different if I
wasn't a professional fan (an interesting oxymoron). I
vaguely remember that I was verging on my current predicament even before I
started getting paid to listen to music. Ten years ago, I was buying records that
only got listened to once; I was taping albums off friends and acquaintances, or
from libraries, for future reference, or "just in case"; there's might even have
been a few acquisitions that I still haven't gotten round to
removing from the shrinkwrap. Thank the Lord that I've never been able to see the
point of bootlegs.
Sometimes I wonder what psychic hole I'm filling with this neurotic
stockpiling of sound. But my real concern is the way that stockpiling and
skimming affect the depth of my listening experience. It's the old opposition of
quantity versus quality. Inundated with music, how is it possible to have a relationship with a record? There are albums from when I was 16, when my collection was still in single figures, that I know inside out; records like The Slits' "Cut", whose every rhythm guitar tic and punky-dread inflection is engraved on my heart, albums like PiL's "Metal Box" or (a bit later) "The Smiths" that I lived inside for months. Music overload destroys the conditions that allow music to weave itself in and around the fabric of your life, to MEAN something.
Of course, as you grow older, you find it harder to get fixated, anyway; you
have less dead time on your hands, you don't tend to have the same emotional
voids to fill. Nonetheless, I still feel that the adolescent mode of engaging with music, i.e. obsession, is the "true" way. Strangely enough, in amongst my hyper-eclectic attempts to keep up with the gamut of modern musics, I have also developed an obsession, whose adolescent urgency I cherish: jungle, a UK-specific post-rave mutant that deliriously blends hip hop's rhythm-science with techno's futuristic textures.
Like any obsession, jungle is literally an addiction. I want that buzz that
even a mediocre jungle track gives me, and that eclipses the appeal of almost
everything but the very best from other genres. 'Cos if you're a genre-ist, it's
the sound (the distinctive production aura of ECM, the groove of '70s dub, and so on), that you're after, not 'songs'. Obsession destroys perspective. To a
non-convert, it all sounds the same; that's how I feel about styles that do
nothing for me, like thrash--to me, an undifferentiated blur of
flagellating chords, tempo gear-changes and vomitous vocals. But the thrash
partisan listens from a different vantage point, can track the microscopic permutations and evolutions of the genre. As a junglist, I too thrill to the play of sameness and difference, the way that the style bends and contorts as it absorbs external influences yet still remain JUNGLE. If you're obsessed, there's no such thing as overload: too much is never enough.
As a music journalist, I'm in the frontlines of what may be a crisis for
the post-industrial West in the 21st Century: cultural overproduction. For it's
not just music, it's the entire mediascape that (with the cable revolution,
on-line, desk-top publishing etc) is afflicted by an excess of
access. There's gonna be too many creators, not enough consumers. I can imagine
a future World Government doing something similar to what the European Community,
faced by surplus 'food mountains', does when it subsidises farmers to leave their
fields fallow, i.e. pay people to be uncreative.
The punk ethos of anyone-can-do-it lives large in music, from lo-fi indie to
home-made techno, and that's fine. But when you move from amateur music-making to
putting out a record, you're staking a claim on people's time. So my message to
music-makers is: think hard before you put it on disc and out into the
marketplace. And to music-lovers:: if you're lucky enough to get
obsessed with something, go with flow, forget about the rest. Music should be
precious, not something you channel-surf through.