Monday, January 27, 2020

a reasonable economy

pop culture and the economy
FACT magazine, 2009
by Simon Reynolds

Because I've written a book on postpunk--actually two books now, with Totally Wired, the new collection of interviews--every so often someone will ask me "Simon, now that the economy's up the shitter like it was in the late Seventies and early Eighties, d'ya reckon there'll be a massive upsurge of radical music on a par with postpunk then?"  And you know,  it would be gorgeous to think this was on the cards--some compensation and consolation for the utter fuckitude of all things economic for the foreseeable.  But I think there' s a problem or several with this by now rather clich├ęd equation of hard times with vibrant music.

For a start, the complete opposite argument can just as easily be made-- and often has been, in fact.  

For instance,  there's that slightly glib but nonetheless grounded in truth connection that people make between the Thirties (wracked by the Depression, shadowed by the rise of fascism, with  world war on the horizon) and escapist entertainment (showbiz glitz, the big band swing era, Hollywood musicals with baroquely elaborate dance sequences--sometimes in swimming pools). I remember commentators in the early Eighties using this Depression/showbiz analogy as an explanation for the rise of New Romanticism and the video-pop of Adam Ant/Duran/Boy George.  Disenchanted veterans of 1977 all, they lambasted the nouveau glam as a retreat from punk's political commitment and confrontation into vapid fantasy and fancy dress.

Another problem with the bad economy =  good music theory is related to its logical corollary, the notion that a booming economy creates complacency and thus a glut of lame, tame music. Actually, the complete opposite is generally accepted to have happened in  the 1960s. When prosperity (Macmillan's "you've never had it so good") and the American-style consumer society (supermarkets,  TV with commercials on, etc) arrived in late Fifties Britain, the post-War culture of austerity and deferral of gratification was thrown off.  Teenagers and young adults had money in their pockets to burn on clothes, music and other forms of self-expression through consumption. The resulting epidemic of pleasure-principled living-for-now was the foundation of the Swinging Sixties boom in pop, fashion and countercultural malarkey of every kind. Plentiful employment --in those days you could walk out of one job and into another the same day-- bred a spirit of insouciance and insubordination in the young.  

Similarly, student grants were considered a basic right then, and because the prospect of life after graduation wasn't so fraught with anxiety about getting on a career track, students treated their three years at college as a period for self-exploration and creative experiments with lifestyle--also known as "pissing about."  Some versions of this theory are almost Marxist in their base-governs-superstructure pinpointing  of the end of "The Sixties" as the autumn of 1973, when the oil crisis began: OPEC flexed its muscles, Western economies tightened, everything started getting more expensive  (including records, which had been so cheap that punters could afford to be experimental with their music taste).

There is a sort of historical-echo version of the Sixties-as-fueled-by-good-times thesis, in which acid house mania and the Second Summer Of Love were sponsored by  the late Eighties boom; the plucky promoters of the big orbital raves of 1989 are further seen as go-getting entrepreneurs, "the children of Thatcher".  I've also seen a theory touted that the USA's late 90s "electronica" explosion was synched to the investor-fever for info-tech start-ups and the resulting economic climate of "irrational exuberance". But while irrational exuberance is the absolutely perfect phrase to describe the Big Beat rocktronica of Chemicals/Fatboy/Prodigy/Underworld etc, I think this thesis is fatally America-centric--as if the very meaning and existence of this music was somehow determined by the Dow Jones Index, when of course it really goes back to the early Nineties, which happened to be a period of economic down-turn.

Fact is, you can generally bend the socioeconomic evidence to suit whatever argument you seek to make.  There is nearly always a sense of malaise and crisis going on in the world, on some level or other.  Even in the Sixties, for all the affluence and all the self-confidence of youth, there was no shortage of dread and paranoia, from the Cold War to Vietnam. Especially in the second half of the Sixties, you saw the early stirrings of the same things-- labour unrest , racial tensions,  war in Northern Ireland--that cast such somber shadows across most of the British Seventies.  Rave, for all its euphoria and hippy-dippy dress sense, and its fortuitous coinciding with positivity-conducive  events in geopolitics (the fall of Communism circa 1989), can also be interpreted as an escape from reality, which by the early Nineties was taking a more somber hue thanks to a recession, the Gulf War, and interminable Tory rule.  In this reading, rave is a flight from the dead-ends and blocked opportunities of the UK's stagnant social system, into a drug-enabled dreamworld of classless, multiracial unity.   Similarly, Britpop a few years later can be taken (depending on your musical sympathies) as either the UK getting its groove on again, feeling cocky and invincible, preparing the ground for New Labour, or as a self-deluding spasm reliant on recycling ideas from earlier phases of England's pop glory and on the artificial ebullience of cocaine, and as such merely mirroring Blair & Co's style-over- substance and empty rhetoric of renewal.

The truth is that it's hard to see that there are clear-cut connections anymore between the state of the economy and the waxing-and-waning of popular music-as-force-for-change.   I say "anymore" because it  feels like there once were such connections, and moreover that it would make sense that there were. How could music and pop culture be sealed off from everything else that is going on in the world and in the lives of we who make it and listen to it? Yet in a sense that is exactly what I think has come to pass:   at some point along the way music and the social/economic became uncoupled. I felt it more strongly than ever last year, in fact, when as far as I could see pop music totally failed to reflect the momentousness  of what was going on in America, the most world-historical election I've lived through as a conscious adult. 

The one real-world force that I think we can say for sure is affecting music --in terms of its base conditions of possibility--is technology.  The landscape of music production and music consumption as we approach the end of this decade is vastly different from 1999. It's been transformed by filesharing, YouTube, MySpace, music siphoned into your mobile phone, and numerous other innovations in the way music is distributed, accessed, and created.  We're at a point where musicians increasingly cannot even give away their music (because the sound-saturated consumer is constrained by one commodity that remains finite and precious--listening-time).  Where the "event" horizon of an album occurs and is finished with long before the record even officially released, because of the leaks that musicians and labels are incapable of preventing.  

We live in a new music reality that is post-geographical (people feel like they are plugged into sounds and scenes they're never had an unmediated experience with) and where music for more and more fans is something you'd never dream of paying for.  The recession has pushed some record shops and labels out of business, but they were shaky and doddering on the brink anyway because of the technological earthquake that's already happened.  The way people surf its shockwaves, or react violently against it, might well lead to the next convulsion in music. Indeed, in the same way that punk rock was prefigured in various forms (the Stooges, pub rock) for a good six years before it happened, we've probably already seen some of the anti-reactions taking early shape: the revived, ever-growing importance of live music and the festival, a resurgence of interest in analogue forms like vinyl, cassette and fanzines.  All suggest a craving for unmediated experience (or equally for tangible media, cultural objects you can hold and keep), for presence, for the Event. It seems unimaginable, but it's possible that the next underground will exist entirely off-line. Equally, the next big thing could be that there's no next big thing…. just further entropy (the "not with a bang…" scenario).  But I doubt very much that any of these outcomes will be affected much by the credit crunch, collapsing property market, rising unemployment, etc. A new musical idea--a really new one, whether within music itself, or in the ways we use music-- will surely catch on regardless of whether the economy is fallow or fertile.   

1 comment:

RA said...

I more or less agree with your larger argument but would like to add some caveats. Trends in pop culture are driven by the young so no matter the general social and economic conditions, the reflection will largely be a case of how youth perceive their situation. Furthermore, with culture so fragment, different demographics within youth culture will perceive the larger world quite differently. I don't think there is any doubt that the rise of gangsta rap is in many ways a reaction to the assault on working-class blacks and blight of crack cocaine (a reaction that spread virally, in part, due to the grim situations facing many groups of young people across the world. A similar argument could be made about grunge and the despairing realization among a large segment of white youth that the steady jobs and security their parents had would not be theirs (and was in fact, being lost by their parents as well). Also, I don't pop music can always be directly linked to particular events - such as Trump/Biden. Biden ain't no MLK and feels like a very distant figure of a politics from which young Americans feel themselves unserved.