Friday, 17 July 2009

The romanticism of pop commodities: a few thoughts

It's clear that at least one of my old sparring partners will miss the CD single, but I cannot help thinking this is Pure Sentimentalism: The Next Generation, as those who fell in love with pop in the 1990s are steadily overtaken by the yearnings of age and the internal mythologisations of early discovery. The question is: will this ever be as endemic, as widespread, as the romanticism of vinyl clearly still is? I personally doubt it.

CD singles were pretty much the quintessential 90s pop product: taking off early in the decade as vinyl steadily became a niche for romantics, pretty much dead in the US by the decade's end, lasting longer in the UK but nonetheless beginning a rapid decline at the turn of the century, squeezed at one end by Napster and its successors and at the other by the chart rules introduced around that time restricting the length of CD singles and numbers of formats, a futile attempt to return to a vanished era of scarcity which rapidly killed off the collectors' market for rare tracks and remixes which by then made up a very significant part of the format's appeal - you no longer needed to buy a single simply for the lead track, that song was now absolutely omnipresent and unavoidable through countless other means. And that I think is the reason why the CD single will be very largely unmourned - by the time it became dominant, pop as a medium - at least in the form of its biggest hits - had become universal, no longer rationed by lingering echoes of austerity, puritanism and old-elite fear of loss of national power. The generation who grew up in the 1990s - and thus on CD singles - simply did not, on the whole, feel the same level of romantic attachment to the pop that captured their hearts the most in the way that earlier generations had. Music obsessives did, probably (and still to a greater extent than now, especially if - like Nick and myself - they felt the romanticism of geographical isolation in the last years before the internet became almost universal in our generation), but the wider audience did not. Once, almost everyone's experience of pop had been, to some extent, romantic (and thus much more likely to place within the audience a yearning for the specific methods by which they first discovered it). By the 1990s, multiple factors had greatly reduced the romanticism of pop, and those factors I suspect will make it far easier for those who grew up with the CD single to leave the format behind with few hankerings.

Nick comments about songs you love being "hidden and a bit inaccessible" which makes it "a bit more precious". He may not have meant it, but he sums up the entire experience of pop pre-mass media saturation, pre-elite approval, pre-celebification of politics, and everything else he was not old enough to truly be part of himself. I would suspect that comparatively few of our generation feel that kind of attachment, which is why we have been able to take the transition to mp3s without any particular sadness. This is also the reason why vinyl sales have increased in the last couple of years, to the point where the 45-rpm single, as a niche product, may well outlive the CD single as any kind of product - vinyl carries within it the mythos and the memories of the romanticism of scarcity, and can appeal to those who never experienced it themselves but wish they had. This is an appeal that the CD single will, I think, never be able to attain - by the 1990s, after all, we were already most of the way to where we are now.


  1. One of my fondest memories is, age 17, before I could drive, making 20-mile-round train journeys on bank holiday Mondays to buy CD singles in Exeter. It is totally about romanticism, about faith, yes; I wonder if people who are 17 today will ever experience that sense of twitching anticipation and expectation in quite the same way. I doubt it, and I feel sorry for them. I'm not sure I should.

  2. In common with, I suspect, most people who ever fell in love with pop *but* can see both sides of the argument, I'm very much in two minds.

    I can remember the pre-teen thrill of seeing Altern 8 or SL2 on TOTP (when they were forced to perform live and thus sound utterly absurd, which somehow contributed to the sense of something out of control) - I didn't actually buy their records, too socially nervous I suppose, and what I did buy was unspeakable and unforgivable. But nothing happens *without permission* anymore in the same way they did, because you don't *need* permission, at least not from the same people - back then, Radio 1 was still run by people just too old to have been teenagers, who were already 19 by the time of "Heartbreak Hotel". And it had power - Reith's brute force of monopoly - such as no outlet has today. Those were the last days of that model.

    The epicentre of the piece I promised but failed to write is an experience I had at the Royal Festival Hall on 9th May 1992 (yes, my mum *did* take me to classical concerts as a child, but I don't think that justifies Dom's other assumptions all that time ago) - the first time I felt betrayed and angry by the world around me, the first time I developed a sense of class awareness. Pop, I felt somehow, could be my weapon against those born to privilege, who had all the advantages and thus the social ease and confidence that I lacked. But now it has become a means for that class to regain power, to cynically rebrand themselves so that nobody realises that they're still the same scum underneath ... I didn't know in May 1992 that I'd just lived through, and felt the pain of, the last pre-pop election, the last to be fought in terms of proper politics and genuine debate rather than a pre-ordained victory for a slick, pop-formed leader over a hopelessly out-of-touch rival (the only difference next time from the previous three will be which - far worse, obviously - side the pop-formed leader will be on).

    Part of me thinks it's time "we" abandoned pop - at least in the conventional sense. Dismiss it as unsalvageable. It, and we, had a very good run. Certainly, if I listen to music radio now it's unlikely to be anything but 1Xtra - at least I know that what I hear on there isn't going to be part of the ruling class's self-justification in anything like the same way. I tend to agree with what lex says on ILM, though from a different starting point - there are still people who think that kind of music isn't "proper" pop. It certainly isn't pop as adjunct of the state - and if that is all white pop is now, we should not be afraid to have the w-word thrown at us. All the other options are worse.

  3. "w-word" as defined above = the one that's a slight alteration of the n-word, obviously