Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Last Saturday

was one of the most glorious - and on a personal level, socially triumphant - moments of my life. Many thanks to all at Kaleidoscope for making it possible, and may there be many more to come, to make me feel that indeed I am alive, and life really is worth living.

Pop's changed circumstances, and how to cope with them

A few years after 1989, at the height of Nirvana's impact, it would have been easy to guess that come 2009 Radio 4 would commemorate the 20th anniversary of the year's political changes. It would still have seemed unthinkable that, when that time did come, they would throw in a retrospective of Nirvana's first session for John Peel, right next to Nigel Lawson's resignation as Chancellor, all the more so if - as is the case - the programme was presented by John Tusa, the very same John Tusa who spent most of the Birt era condemning every action the BBC made to shake off the legacy of Reithian cultural hierarchy, and accusing the new government in 1997 of showing a bias against "anything that could be called high culture" (I don't actually disagree with this, but would view this as an inevitable byproduct of any market-led ethos of government, a world NuLab, for all their faults, were given and didn't make).

The fact that this has happened will undoubtedly make certain people shudder with accusations of cultural theft, but for me it's something to respond to constructively - something to make us realise that we have to reinvent what pop can be if we are not to be bound up to a new establishment even less democratic and accountable than the old one was. It should be the starting point for a whole new burst of creativity. I fear it won't be, though.

Not in their name

One of the happiest events of the weekend - and I hope their win will not cause temporary satisfaction; these things are wrong in principle - was the Liverpool fans' demonstration against the club's ownership by unaccountable American plutocrats.

This was particularly gratifying because, all too often, we hear the apologists for football plutocracy justify it by saying that if it hadn't happened we would inevitably have had another Hillsborough, and that it has somehow been done in the name of those who died there, at Bradford and at Heysel. This is the same dangerous and misleading "either with us or against us" argument used by apologists for the Bush administration's foreign policy, and for so much else that is unjustifiable: those who lost their lives in those terrible events would probably have wanted the old-style, petit-bourgeois, provincial, small-scale capitalism which once controlled football clubs to be swept away, but in common with all other socialists (and that, considering their geographical and likely social background, is what the vast majority of those killed, at least in the two Yorkshire tragedies, almost certainly were) they certainly wouldn't have wanted it to be replaced with a grander-scale version of the same thing. They would instead have been infinitely more likely to want a true democratic ownership, controlled neither by aldermen nor by billionaires, with each citizen having a stake in what was theirs - everything the fanzine movement was calling for in the 1980s.

The idea that there are only two possible ways, dangerous squalor or ever-increasing elite control and inequality, is like the idea that the only two cultures in the world are Coca-Cola and Home Service (often trotted out by those who mock my concept of European pop) - a deeply depressing narrowing of the parameters of debate. If you were to tell those Liverpool fans who demonstrated at the weekend that control by plutocrats was justified in the name of the 96, you'd be viciously and scathingly condemned in no uncertain terms. As you should be. It's reassuring to know that not everyone has fallen for the myth that the new-style capitalists care about them any more than the old ones did.

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Six years ago

Reynolds, K-Punk and I had an epic discussion about, among other things, when exactly the 1960s lineage ended, highlighted by a disagreement over what exactly Peter Gabriel's "Sledgehammer" ended - Reynolds thought the lineage of liberal tolerance and art-pop inherited from the 60s, I thought the Old Tory England which was the other, less fashionable victim of Thatcherism (as I have pointed out elsewhere, Cameron - or, as he will forever be known here, Carlton Man - merely confirms this end rather than challenges it).

I'd still broadly stand by that, though I can now better express my view that to see the 80s as a force crushing absolutely everything that came from the 60s, a decisive ending to a mythical golden era, is profoundly misleading because it ignores the vital fact that, to a very considerable extent, neoliberalism was merely a natural continuation of impulses set loose by 60s pop culture. But by the same criteria I think I can say, almost certainly with much greater accuracy, that the punk lineage - the line of descent to 1977 in British music - decisively, definitely ended with "Whatever" by Oasis. I will explain why, if anyone wants.

Why do they still feel the need?

Looking through the new Radio Times - yes, yes, I know it's a bit like fucking a corpse, but it has to be done - I notice repeated derogatory references to "snobbery", and even one to (good grief) "lingering European hauteur". What makes these constant allusions so much less defensible than similar references in, say, the NME of the 1970s would have been is that they're condemning something that no longer really exists anyway. Mass demands being the only ones that matter and the market deciding everything are now so absolutely embedded in the structure of British society that you wonder why anyone feels the need to so constantly denounce something they themselves have long since decisively defeated.

There are two possible reasons, and I suspect it's a combination of the two. If the new rulers of the modern BBC were so confident and assured of the rightness of their ideology - commodified anti-elitism in lieu of real democratisation (if that much-abused word can ever be reclaimed) - then they surely wouldn't be so anxious to constantly denounce that which they have destroyed. Could it be that, somewhere underneath, they know that much of value has been thrown out and are secretly full of shame and regret over their own involvement?

But I suspect there is another, less reassuring, perhaps bigger element. These people really are riddled with obsessive hatred and intolerance of anyone who doesn't conform to their creed. Their contempt for anyone who dares to transgress - whether towards Reithianism or socialist-utopianism, or any ideology which isn't built on popcult fundamentalism - is, if anything, far deeper and nastier than the contempt of at least post-Reithians (who didn't really die until 15 years ago) for those who went against their principles, and far more dangerous because it is couched in terms of inclusivity and tolerance. It is far, far off those aims. It is the antithesis of true democratisation.

Sunday, 18 October 2009

"Democratisation": the great soft-left myth

Momus quotes Reynolds & K-Punk to make a point I've often felt like making but never really known how (in fact, I'm not sure I know now) - that what is most commonly described as "democratisation" actually isn't anything of the kind, and is in fact a self-sustaining myth which does not live up to its own promises, and dresses up an increase in corporate power and control as an increase in mass self-empowerment, whereas in reality it represents precisely the opposite, seemingly only because it may alienate an Old Right axis at the edge of British society who lost all meaningful power decades ago. It cannot be said too often.

Web 2.0 isn't the first major cultural shift the left have played badly in this way: when the state's covert involvement in pop was massively ramped up in the 1980s, a nervous, embattled left threw the baby of articulate, reasoned criticism of capitalism and the means of production out with the bathwater of Hoggartist snobbism, and in doing so rendered itself utterly impotent as a critic of the culture which it falsely assumed, based on misremembered boomer wet dreams, was a legitimate democratic voice - by the decade's end, the left's view of popular culture was pretty much indistinguishable from a reinvented right cowing that rock'n'roll had brought down the Berlin Wall virtually single-handed, and less progressive even than the most insular elements of the Old Left (and, indeed, than some - only some, obviously - of the regimes that fell 20 years ago this autumn; for all Communism's obvious faults, you don't become inherently and instantly more progressive by running to the opposite extreme). During and after the 80s, the same unhappy conclusion - blind celebration of all mass production on the grounds that it fitted prole tastes so therefore must never be criticised, however cynical the exploitative means and methods of its creators were - pretty much did for Cultural Studies. By 1990, much of the left was so deeply riddled with apologias for the narrowing of British television's cultural scope, justified in terms of being "accessible" and not "alienating" the mass, that its only difference from the Murdochian lobby was - and has remained - its reason for holding certain views, not the views themselves.

But perhaps of more direct relevance here, the left played the 80s badly in the precise sense of not using the new forms to convey a clear message in the way the right did: fearful of engaging with those forms at all, it indeed preferred instead to celebrate a vague, poorly-defined dictum of "openness" rather than setting out a definite set of views of its own. All it offered to challenge the blatant neoliberalism of Duran Duran or hair metal, or the world-eating pseudo-concern of U2, was the vague, cuddly, non-threatening multiculturalism of BBC community programmes or, indeed, almost all the black pop favoured by the mid-decade NME which backed go-go against both house and hip-hop. Now there's probably an underlying message here about the inherent incompatibility of mass pop culture and leftist-utopianism (even back then, the dominant gene in hip-hop was aggressive-individualist) and if that is true, and it probably, unspeakably depressingly (because I still want to love pop, for many reasons) it is, I can quite understand why much of the left has long wanted to give pop culture up as a bad job, but the fact is that it has to be engaged with on some level - the alternative is leaving yourself open to something far worse, just as the left running scared from the 1980s speaking in terms of "inclusivity" without stopping to define what they wanted to include left it indefensible against the Blairites (note that I am not aligning myself with Blair's own comments just before he left office, encouraging repression of what little serious investigative journalism there is in the UK and of free speech on the internet - I am merely questioning whether forms of communication which should in theory increase free speech, and often do, also encourage the weak-minded and weak-willed to surrender their opinions to the point where they have practically none left, and therefore work directly against their own best purpose and use).

What is most dispiriting about the present situation is that, just as all the left's political mistakes of the late 1970s have been repeated, all its cultural mistakes of the subsequent decade seem to be being made again: the right is using Web 2.0 just as it used the newly-globalised pop industry in the 1980s - as a platform to spread a message of divide-and-rule rendered misleadingly appealing to the young by its encasement in imagery still very widely (but wrongly) believed to be inherently "democratic". Much of the left, by comparison, aren't even trying - they're using the exact same Cameronist rhetoric of "democratisation", based not around real democratisation (it's a fine word in principle but, like so many, irrevocably tainted by misuse) or egalitarianism, but around the rhetoric of mere numbers, of wealth and power justified in the most misleadingly faux-egalitarian terms, of the fiction that having the privilege of commenting on newspaper websites gives the mass any genuine power. It may well be that the form and style of modern mass culture is inherently shaped against the left. But they - we - should be trying harder than this.

This is also the reason why I don't post here all that often, or fall for the pseudo-democracy (in fact defined in terms of a narrowing of thought and range which is about as "democratic" as Cameron's talk of rolling back the state) of Twitter et al. I post as often as I feel like it. I only communicate when I genuinely feel I have something of interest and value to communicate - I had my fingers burnt by too many years of pumping the air with bullshit because I thought it had to be said, or was somehow worth saying. That may put me out of sync with the spirit of the age, in some ways, but I still make use of the communicative aspects of Web 2.0 to challenge the neoliberal myths and lies in whose name it is so relentlessly misused - I can be as critical of the general assumptions on certain fora as I have ever been, and I want that to remain the case. The lies of an era can only be challenged by serious engagement with its most widespread means, however much abuse you may have thrown at you (it is the mark of maturity to be able to wear that kind of response with pride). That, not tabloid kneejerkery dressed up as constructive comment, is true democracy.

(p.s. HKM - you may not believe it, or even want to believe it, but I write this and say this in large part because of you)

Friday, 9 October 2009

Why I don't say the obvious, now

One of my ghosts speculates - in the forum where I learnt and unlearnt almost everything, the one I could not leave alone, however much I knew - that I might post about the parallels between the slow death of New Labour and the final end of Oasis. I considered that, briefly, in August. But I didn't because I've - to use a phrase which will never really fit my writing style but I'll use it anyway - been there, done that. Carmodism cannot be renewed forever, at least not if I want to keep renewing myself. I could easily also be posting here about how every tragic mistake made in the late 1970s has been repeating itself, from the failure to jump at the chance of an autumn election (which, more crucially now than then, could not have had a virtual year-long campaign before it as in the US) to workers in a vulnerable national industry going on strike just at the time when it could be most politically fatal for the very survival of that industry. But I don't, on the whole. Futile escapism, perhaps. But others can write about pure politics better than me. When I do post here, and I hope I will more often, I prefer to create a sense of a parallel universe. When we go, we can at least all go together. Also, Oasis - unlike the band whose reputation they distorted and damaged so much by association, as the BNP do to any national idea, however vague - are simply too depressing musically to want to write anything about them whatsoever, whichever angle it comes from. They heralded an epic lie and fraud. Now we're on the brink of an even greater one. What's new?