Tuesday, 6 January 2009

The death of British pop revisited

Sorting out mid-1990s editions of Melody Maker isn't like sorting out any old magazines.  It's like going through a litany - at once both personal and public - of lost dreams ("we could just be seeing the most art-literate generation since the mid-60s, and in a roundabout way you can thank Blur for that" - Taylor Parkes in November 1994, a tear in the retrospective eye), dying worlds, collapsing subcultures, bloated new-elite arrogance, the birth of a false, lie-built consensus, and the ultimate end of almost everything the magazine itself had stood for.  It was much more cathartic than I thought it would be. And I think, as with almost everything else, that it was the power of timing that did it.

In January 1994, two structures which now seem impossibly irrecoverable - the genuinely political (as opposed to showbiz by other means) structure of Conservative and Labour parties, the latter fairly recognisable as historically Leftist, both essentially pre-pop and pre-marketing, and the idea of subculture in British music established by punk and redefined by rave - still existed in the present tense, even though actual public belief in the relevance of the former and confidence in the latter's cultural power among its exponents had been in decline for years.  Within two, certainly three years, neither existed in the same sense, nor could they ever exist again.  We were into a whole new world by now - of British politicians defining themselves by jumping aboard pop bandwagons (adopted by NuLab largely because all the genuine political differences that had previously told them from the Tories had been thrown on the scrapheap, and later by Cameron because all the supposed genuine political differences that told him from the old Tories didn't actually exist), and of what had been a subculture defining itself by its absorption into a Radio 1 which within a year of Blair's election had decided it no longer needed them because fashions had changed.  The cultural dynamic which British pop had thrived on since its post-Suez prehistory had well and truly died: from this moment, nobody pretended that it could ever be more than a tool of the neoliberal state. 

I am not saying that there is no good pop music being made in this country - indeed, if you know where to find it, there's at least as much as there ever was, whether it's Chipmunk or Rachel Unthank and the Winterset (parallel pops which in truth have far more in common, inasmuch as that both define and express the experience of those who never had credit to play with as if normal economic rules had come to an end during the Blair era, than dogmatic camp followers of either would ever want to admit) and of course there are means of bypassing the industry middleman that simply weren't around 15 years or more ago - but when everyone has their own clique, and nobody needs to take the "norm" because that norm simply isn't around anymore other than as Simon Cowell's plaything, having collapsed in its vainglorious last gasp that came with Britpop, you can't blame people for feeling a sense of loss, a sense of frustration that the most potentially transcendent pops are happy to exist in their own ghettoes while the elite ideology becomes an ever more brazen mistranslation of pop's essential opportunism.

It's incredible, in retrospect, just how much non-thought, and how many non-ideas, were justified in the mid-'90s on the grounds that they weren't the same thoughts and ideas as had prevailed in THE EIGHTIES (spoken of almost as if it had been an actual, as opposed to mere pop-cultural and political, war crime).  In a manner all too typical of how the Blair government would turn out, genuine thought was suspended, and criticism of the era's holy grails was seen almost as blasphemy, as a distraction from what turned out to be a deluded, false promise. NuLab had to be the wholly good because at least it wasn't full-on Thatcherism, the Premiership had to be the wholly good because it was the opposite of what football had become in the mid-'80s, Britpop had to be the wholly good because it was a different situation from that of a decade earlier when Phil Collins had been dominant and the Smiths stalled at number 26. There was a good deal of justification to the anti-1980s attitude, but it's increasingly shaming to reflect on how few people dared to say that NuLab did not represent a genuinely radical or profound shift from Thatcherism, or that football might eventually become every bit as unequal, dominated by plutocrats and removed from the lives of most of its followers as it had previously been squalid and outmoded, or that Britpop's denial of the very idea of a subculture, and abandonment of interest in all territories beyond the singles chart, might do profound, long-term cultural damage.  All that mattered was short-term interests and being the opposite of the '80s.  We can see the results of the pop-cultural short-termism all around us, and we can see all too viciously that NuLab proved to be simply a continuation of all the aspects of the '80s most portentously condemned in the mid-'90s, which in some ways might reach their natural conclusion in a regression even further back, combining the essential self-centredness and disdain for public provision of Thatcherism with the autocratic / aristocratic rule of the '50s and early '60s as it would have been without the Attlee settlement as a constant background presence.  If Britpop remains for the foreseeable future every bit as untouchable and beyond the pale as prog used to be - and I can only see its reputation declining even further - it will be the political nature of its con trick that damns it, not its regressive but, in itself, unremarkable music.

It hadn't been the best of weekends, after all.  Hearing ELO's "Telephone Line" half-asleep on Sunday night hit me harder on pure emotional level than any song has for some time - I've always loved the song, responded to its desperate all-or-nothing, now-or-never last gasp as an accurate emotional reflection of its time (I'm not suggesting that Jeff Lynne specifically wrote about "living in twilight" to consciously mean the twilight of Butskellism, more that the feeling of the time was so total and all-pervasive that it affected very nearly everyone on some level) but now it's intensified and full-blown, because that 1977/78 feeling that even those of us who weren't even born at the time know almost as if we were there, that balance of dread (which briefly dissipated, it would appear, in the mirage summer of '78) and certain knowledge that everything is up for grabs, that whoever wins the next election has complete ownership of our forseeable future, feels so unsettlingly like now.  When Cameron invoked Hadrian in his New Year message, could he have been implying a coded message that he might even become an ally of convenience of the SNP when the final shoot-out is on?  And could the harsh moral of the mid-1990s - that what seemed to be a fantastic rebirth of British pop as we had known it actually turned out to be its death rattle - have been merely a trial run for the same fate befalling the Labour Party, even in its most neoliberal incarnation?


  1. That quote from the old me is pretty eye-popping - I have no memory of writing it. Sounds very much like I was trying to look on a bright side of some kind, as I had to sometimes in order to make a living. Also, I was convinced that at least occasional optimism, or pointing out of possibilities, was part of the job. Strangely, at that time it did seem reasonable to point out those possibilities, however unlikely they seemed already (I always disagreed wildly with that "fantastic rebirth of British pop" stuff, as well as finding it incredibly irritating). I suppose that Blur offered more pointers to THE KIDS than anyone from the era we'd just left - not the Eighties, but the Carter / Neds / Wonder Stuff early Nineties. That was the enemy at the time, I remember - it was still clinging on to some extent, in the months before Britpop became the new orthodoxy. Do you remember exactly where that quote comes from, by any chance?

    I'd agree with most of the rest of this, anyway.

  2. Taylor - the context of that quote was an article you wrote about the '94 mod revival (for MM's Mod-themed edition) where you said that Blur weren't themselves Mods but they'd legitimised and encouraged, almost accidentally a lot of positive ideas associated with Mod culture, and that was a good thing. I *think*. Something like that, anyway. You also mentioned that said "art-literate" teens were "watching the films of Godard, Roeg and Truffaut", which seems even more piquant now.

    Many thanks for commenting. As you know, you're one of the few in my mind.

  3. "Sounds very much like I was trying to look on a bright side of some kind, as I had to sometimes in order to make a living"

    "the context of that quote was an article you wrote about the '94 mod revival (for MM's Mod-themed edition)"

    There we are then.

    That stuff about kids watching fancy films is funny - I mean, the kids *I* knew were, but I didn't seriously think everyone was, apart from the people who *do* at that age. It's marketing language, really, isn't it? Trying to make people feel they *should* be doing something. I'd never dream of writing like that now - and didn't really enjoy it then - but it was part of the deal if you wanted to survive in the music press at that time.

    Enjoy your time away from the internet.

  4. I have this issue now - see announcement. I've made a mental note.