Sunday, 27 February 2011

Kneejerkery, reason, empires and pop culture

"Kneejerk anti-Americanism", Alex? In the past, I must admit I have been guilty, before I realised how complex and - arguably - unsolvable these questions are. But it was only ever an act of sheer desperation at the myopia and ignorance around me - the mentality whereby words like "Paki" and "sponger" are freely thrown about, and Britain's island status is regarded as something to be defended with our lives, but Roy Orbison and Gene Pitney (and, if anything much more disturbingly, their equivalents among younger people raised in Mail/Sun homes) are treated as though they were fucking Linden Lea, the double standards implicit in almost all English use of the term "bloody foreigners" - rather than a rational and thought-out political argument. As a much more mature and balanced person than I was when I posted on ILM, I think I would be able to make such arguments in a more controlled and thought-out way, now.

A large part of me (especially that part whose interpretation of socialism is closer to that of north-east England than north-west England, though rest assured that my view is always far more internationalist and left-libertarian than that of David Lindsay, who appears to think the landed aristocracy is more quasi-socialist than Sly and the Family Stone were) does think that socialism and pop culture in the form it has come to take today and which Lex loves the most are irreconcilable, and if this leads me to say things that people who do not want to recognise the inherently political nature of every aspect of life in a capitalist society do not want to hear, then I really can't help that. I willingly admit that the actual sonic impact of the music I've written about hasn't been my strongest area - I realised that with a start several years back when I noticed that my LiveJournal piece about the Kinks' 1973/4 Preservation albums literally didn't mention how they sounded once. I don't defend that. But the serious study of mass culture needs specialists in each specific field, and my own expertise in the socio-political impact of a music can fit perfectly with the expertise of others in sheer sound.

Let us not forget, at this point, that I also got into trouble on ILM because of my po-mo, relativist streak, and for suggesting that the authenticist line that grime and similar styles do not "belong" in places such as the one in which I lived (and live) is profoundly problematic, to say the least. I can reassure Lex and anyone else of his ilk that I do not want a quasi-feudal or Communist Britain, or indeed the Clark/Lindsay nativist hybrid of the two. I just wish that, say, Martin Solveig's "Hello" was higher in the charts than played-out Rihanna songs (great as she usually is) or BRIT School pseudo-pop, and I notice the fact that in Scotland (and even more so in the wholly separate Irish chart) it is higher than many of those things, and I wonder whether Scotland and Ireland's specific histories may be a factor in this - whether political or cultural alignments deep in history, and long-standing battles against a former empire's attempts to bury them, may affect 2011 audiences' conceptions of pop, and where they want their countries to be in the world, which will itself be a key factor in which kind of pop they feel an affinity to. And I wonder whether someone like Alex Macpherson may come from a family where the idea of being part of a great power was historically central, and whether he may align himself to the present great power more out of a basic, elemental thrust to feel important, part of something the world supposedly aspires to as it once supposedly aspired to the values of the British Empire, than out of any genuinely progressive thoughts or aspirations. I also wonder whether he may be in hock to the things he is in hock to more out of a desire to distance himself from the values of learning and aspiration which he was probably raised for (as I was) than because he really does love them unequivocally and instinctively. This does not equate to puritanism, conservatism, Communism or a desire to censor and suppress. It simply equates to a desire to ask questions about the nature of the economic system we live under, and whether what we are being sold at the moment is as fulfilling or challenging as it should be. I really don't see what can be wrong with that.


  1. I largely share these sentiments.

    I have a libertarian-left outlook, coupled with a dislike of most cultural relativism - not exclusively an American thing of course. I say this of course as someone very much into areas of genre cinema and literature that are far from 'high culture'; and as someone who likes pop music, or rather the best of it - a disproportionate amount of which comes from the 1962-85 period.

    However, I would say that need a more grown-up culture, which puts the trivial more in its place, that would not rate Mr Blobby or Matt Cardle as equally worthy of appreciation as the music of J.S. Bach or the writing of Proust or Joyce.

    I am fascinated by popular culture and forms (some pop music and the older melodrama and music-hall, horror films and silent comedy), I am just not an uncritical cheerleader for it in its current form. I think - and I sense many others are yearning for this - that popular culture can be much better and more vital than it is. Yes, a force for liberal values - but crucially not neo-liberal ones.

    I think that if you have been 'anti-American' then it has perhaps been a necessary counterweight to those British who have been practically 51st-staters either politically or culturally. Of course, it has to be nuanced; a criticism of aspects of US culture rather than a wholesale condemnation. European culture is as infused with capitalism, though it is a notably more bourgeois, reformist capitalism - and admittedly, European seems more open to left-wing ideas.

  2. Indeed. The post was aimed at a certain set of people who see *any* kind of criticism of the current *form* of mass culture and capitalism as either "snobbish" and "elitist" or "Communist" and "Marxist" (which, among much else, is a cretinous misreading of Marx, who - much like the pro-offshore-radio wing of the New Left in the 1960s - saw capitalism and mass production as an ally of convenience to the extent that it would reduce the power of quasi-feudal national elites). To some extent, it's also a mea culpa on my part for my own views not having been sufficiently nuanced and balanced in the past, even with the proviso that it was still the Bush era.

    I think that most reassessments and changes of critical consensus on pop music - and what eras and styles of it are of most value - in recent times are a response to the importance of what were once seen as the most "rebellious" and "anti-establishment" forms to the Blairite/neoconservative agenda. Alexei Sayle's links to 'Northern Songs' on BBC2's 1992 'Granadaland' night - included the assertion that "nothing of interest happened" from 1967-77. Now that might be a slight exaggeration of the critical norms of the time, but the "NME consensus" really did state that virtually everything between the offshore stations' sinking and the first upsurge of punk was a great mistake because it had abandoned a supposedly rebellious cultural litany in favour of "establishment" culture.

    Certainly mistakes were made, but happily we've now reached a far more nuanced view of that era (which also includes an acceptance and recognition of the invention within a state-funded outlet such as the Radiophonic Workshop), and I think the reason for this is that the whole Little Richard lineage seems much less startling, and much less defensible as an "anti-establishment" signifier, considering its importance as what the neoliberal/Blairite project was fighting to make the world safe for, whereas European cultural references (when treated with intelligence and respect, rather than pummelled into submission beneath a bland parody of American rock'n'roll as with ELP) seem more individual and independent and much less bound up with the elite than they once did, now that we've had a neoliberal government rooted in straight-down-the-line rock'n'roll which tried its hardest to weed them out because it saw them as a threat to its Atlanticist vision of the EU. Certainly, I never imagined - well within the last decade - that I could like "From the Underworld" or most of 'Days of Future Passed', both the embodiment of the post-offshore-radio comedown and foundation stones of prog, and thus the precise point where, according to the NME consensus, Everything Went Wrong - anywhere near as much as I now do.

    I know we've been through this before, but that Alexei Sayle comment really did hit me, because it was a genuinely heartfelt view for the best part of two decades, and was honestly seen by its exponents as the best form of weaponry against the establishment, but now the establishment is a wholly different set of people, and the recognition of Delia Derbyshire's greatness is really a recognition that the cultural rules changed forever the day Britain went into Iraq in the name of "Honky Tonk Women".

  3. Whether or not people still believe in the NME consensus has become a crucial generation gap signifier, I think - for many who are old enough to have read the NME before 1997, the ease with which many of us can now flit between, say, Can and early Genesis, or PiL and early Floyd, is as hard to accept as the ease with which boomers could flit between "high" and "popular" culture was for those who had formulated their cultural thinking before 1956. You can see it in all sorts of places - No Rock And Roll Fun saying with a tinge of bitterness that Plan B's audience is "too young to know that concept albums are meant to be a bad thing", Henry K. Miller on ILM (who is the same age as me, so right on the cusp of these things) finding it hard to accept that Gabriel-era Genesis can ever be used as a synonym for *successful* ambition, rather than the opposite as they were within the NME consensus (often by people who had never heard any of their records other than the unavoidable 80s hits).

    While the collapse of the NME consensus would probably have been inevitable with the explosion of media which makes it impossible for one journal of record to define its territory in one country - whatever that territory is - what interests me about it is the correlation with the Blairite exploitation of the old consensus' foundation stones. The turning point was the summer of 1997 - concurrently, the 'Be Here Now' hype was so populist and celebified that it was impossible for the NME ever again to promote itself as a journal of record, as much so as it is for the modern-day Times to be seen as such, and an attempt was made to promote 'Calling All Stations' - Genesis' post-Collins attempt at a partial return to their old style - to Radiohead & Mansun fans. While that was never going to work, because it was crap, it became clear at that moment that Britpop & Blair, through their promotion of the NME consensus on what *music* was of value in a much more populist and consumerist way than had ever happened before - stripping out all the stuff about political and social principles, for a start - had rendered the *whole* consensus unsustainable.