Monday, 15 August 2011

1999-2002 (And Ensuing Spenglerian Decline)*

There's always a risk of nostalgia with these blogs, but I think for the most part everyone has done a pretty good job of avoiding it, perhaps largely because backward-looking is so obviously The Problem Right Now, and utterly devoid of all negative potential. I say this to make clear that the following post is written without any conscious nostalgic sentiment, and by a determined, fundamentalist hater of past-worship.

This disclaimer is necessary because I want to suggest that part of the reason for the moribundity of contemporary pop music is that, at some point in the early-to-mid noughties, lots of incipient, potentially great musical movements were jettisoned, thus depriving us of the modernistic alternative culture which peaked around the turn of the century and that should have carried on growing.

This is an idea some of us have touched on lightly in comments boxes, and it seems to be gaining currency elsewhere as we approach the 10-year "point of objectivity"; namely, that the period 1999-2002 was in some senses a golden age for pop, or at the very least, a sort of window of possibility that was subsequently closed and bolted shut by an unspecified combination of Bush/Blair/Iraq/9/11/nu-rock/neoliberalism-on-autopilot/Jo Whiley/Justin Lee Collins/Heat Magazine/Zane Lowe/Pete Doherty/the internet/climate change/good old fashioned cultural-economic decline.

Owen talks about this idea of an early-noughties "opening" in his Pulp book [I've already quoted this on my own blog so apologies for the repetition if you've read it there]:
... in the early 2000s, the NME made a swerve into coverage of electronic music, R&B and hip-hop, but covers for Aphex Twin, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Destiny's Child and Missy Elliott did not go down well with readers; as is well known, the NME's circulation has always plummeted when a black artist is on the cover.
And today, in Pitchfork, Tom Ewing offers similar sentiments:
The summer of 2002 was studded with so many terrific pop, rap, and R&B singles that it now feels like that time was the peak of something. And as new ways of distribution break down old musical habits, there are calls for us to revive past ways of experiencing music. It's easy to become reactionary. But the snowball excitement of a leak was something new and giddy then-- tens and hundreds of people, first friends then strangers, discovering and thrilling to a track all at once. Pop waxes and wanes, but that communal joy stays with me.
Ewing advocates a Whiggish, "poptimist" view of pop, a somewhat apolitical perspective that opposes "reaction" with the optimistic assertion that technological progress (in his case social media and internet downloading) is essentially a positive force that will create more and better musical results. Nevertheless, he seems to be suggesting something slightly different here: that the "communal joy" which initially presided over internet culture in the early part of the 2000s was something new and exciting (past tense) and that, ten years on, this "peak" seems like a time of lost opportunities since reneged upon. 

Again, nostalgia must be avoided at all costs. The period in question was hardly a modern Renaissance. The pop and r'n'b of the time was often riddled with appallingly Thatcherite lyrics (cf. esp. Destinys Child) and used to promulgate a very-un-radical culture of consumer hedonism. But how about this for a broad-brush theory of what has happened to pop culture: its increasing obeisance to technology and the shift to ultra-individual consumption has actually completely severed all connection between contemporary music and "communal" contexts, has completely obviated any way of linking pop production to a collective history. At some point in the mid noughties, pop ceased to be joined to the world in any meaningful sense.

Another reason why this seems accurate is that, in many ways, you can so easily imagine an alternate history in which this cultural impasse hadn't descended, in which r'n'b, grime, and dubstep had continued to flourish up to the point that, in 2011, with an African American president installed in Washington, and with radical oppositional feeling burgeoning in the UK, pop and politics would have coincided in the way they have done in the past, and music might have soundtracked and enabled a wider reform movement founded in positive emancipatory sentiment. Wouldn't Miss E ... So Addictive have made so much more sense if it had dropped this year? Wouldn't 2011 rather than 2003 have been a much better year for Boy in Da Corner to win the Mercury Prize?

The most salient question arising out of all of this should be: how are these moments of possibility closed down? How did the noughties come to be dominated from 2003 onward, not by the innovations of Missy Elliott, Aphex Twin, and Godspeed You Black Emperor!, but by a completely ethically and artistically bankrupt, retromanic (*nods at SR*) pop culture with absolutely no relation whatsoever to the historical moment?

Maybe the simple, obvious answer to the belated, harebrained question posed by the editor of NME this weekend ("Punk spoke up for angry kids. Why won't today's bands follow suit?") is that, when organs like the NME abandon an alternative position and start championing The Strokes, Razorlight, and Kaiser Chiefs over Dizzee Rascal, So Solid Crew, and Destinys Child, sooner or later relevant pop culture is going to dry up. If the progressive modernism of the turn of the millenium had been given continued mainstream coverage and representation, and if we hadn't all retreated into atomistic microcosms from which it's increasingly impossible to agree collectively on what new and meaningful even mean, right now the musical tendencies of 1999-2002 might be reaching near-deafening, revolutionary levels of volume.

*"The Speng" seems to have become a sort of mascot for these blogs hasn't he? Bonza.


Phil Knight said...

These blogs are just a front for my Spengler/Stranglers/Benny Hill kulturkampf.

Seriously tho', as regards the black-face-on-the-cover-of-NME meme, I remember in the mid-80's when the NME had a seperate review section for black music, called "Black Music", which was usually compiled by their Black music journalist Dele Fadele.

And this was at the same time they had the likes of Steven Wells whipping up a fever over Apartheid South Africa.

It's kind of why I don't subscribe to the "good old days of the NME" smoke-blowing.

W. Kasper said...

To be fair, the likes of Stuart Cosgrove or Ian Penman (what happened to him BTW? I used to like his blog a lot) did wax lyrical over the relatively-unknown black performers they thought deserved wider audiences. With quite in-depth articles, before the Smiths-nimbies started their equivalent of e-petitions and Daily Express clean-ups. And I recall Dele Fadele was also into Industrial and noise-type stuff like Swans or Test Dept. along with 'black' music.

However, Steven Wells was a gimmicky blowhard with rubbish taste who's SWP huffin' and a puffin' never got him that C4 TV gig he so obviously craved. Hope he's reading this. He was rubbish.

W. Kasper said...

In fact, Steven Wells was so rubbish I sometimes see that fool John Robb round town and think: There's that idiot Steve Wells. 50 year old men who still think that pins through the nose was a significant step forward for the global working class.

Phil Knight said...

SW is dead I think.

Which means I have to kind of RIP him while at the same time basically agree with you.

W. Kasper said...

Now I feel guilty, you git.

Anyway, at least I'm certain it's John Robb round town.

Alex Niven said...

Yeah Swells died the same week as Michael Jackson.

I once went up to John Robb at one of them Wire reformation gigs in Manc but I was so pissed I couldn't even string a sentence together.

And I vaguely remember Fadele as a champion of US hardcore, which might fit with Wayne's idea about him being into "noise-type stuff".

Phil Knight said...

Well, I'm not casting any aspersions on Mr. Fadele, I just thought the "feature" was a somewhat odd bit of ghettoising that ran contrary to the paper's declared politics.

Anyways, tying this in with the bit I've just done on "Faces", what about the absence of the Cold War? Thus removing the Bomb Culture/Party Like It's 1999 impetus to hedonism.

Has this taken away some of the crucial "bite" that pop culture used to have? Should we be hoping that Vlad P gets nasty?

Alex Niven said...

Hmm I dunno, that would be approaching a truly Spenglerian long perspective!

I guess though the basic fact that people are generally anaesthetized to mortality and hardship (even within their own head/family/country) these days must be significant. Not having a means of positing a source of suffering and "evil", even a spurious one like the Soviet Union (or a real one like the Bomb), probably inevitably removes a lot of the urgency and definition of art. It's hard to write a meaningful song about the fact that the "enemy" is probably your own neuroses/greed, or else a largely anonymous global power elite (although you'd think someone might at least try to do this ...)

I dunno, I'm jut riffin' here like.

Phil Knight said...

Well, the funny thing is that though the Cold War has gone, we do actually have another Sword Of Damocles hanging over us, but it's one that very few people deign to notice. I'm referring to Peak Oil of course.

If people really understood the ramifications of this (i.e. we'll all be digging up our own spuds) then I suspect we'd see a storm of cultural activity, largely because we'd be forced to recognise that most of our "normal" cultural activities will shortly be coming to an end.

Here's a prediction: When Saudi Aramco eventually get round to admitting that the Ghawar field is in depletion, the Western World will go apeshit in a manner that will make the last week in London look like a tea party. I suspect this will be accompanied by a flood of sentimental/angry/poignant records, films etc., that will mourn what we're being forced to abandon.

W. Kasper said...

Interesting point about cold war - all kinds of stuff was permitted/encouraged to parade western 'freedom' vs. the commie tyrants, wasn't it? Post-war art movements, national cinemas, grassroots politics, youth subcultures etc. Rise and fall of rock'n'roll definitely a cold war thing.

Re: Dizzy Rascal - If his debut was released now it wouldn't be a contender for Mercury, or get much MSM recognition in 2011. If grime emerged now, it would be quietly buried via those channels. It barely got space in the clubs to start with really (police wouldn't grant licenses to places playing it in my hometown). Considering its ties to youth clubs and free courses in urban areas it would likely be strangled at birth. Will be interesting to see what - if any - creative subcultures emerge after the cuts. Tories may be quick to criminalise them as much as possible if anything does.

The 00's said...

Nah mate, 2003 was when it really got good, none of this freeky deeky stuff. I remember them days, twas a utopia mate, heading out from my flat in Camden every week to buy the NME and get a new haircut. There was a new Nirvana on the cover each time! The Strokes, The Libertines, The Kooks, music was finally about what it should be about, nothing. It was music to go shopping for blazers and skinny jeans with. And that was the year our brave boys headed off to Iraq to bomb them terrorists so they had the human rights of democratic citizens after they got murdered. We on the home front knew it was our job to keep things light, simple, nice songs your mam could listen to. Songs about smiling and girls who did things in their own special way and going out on the town looking cool in your blazer and skinny jeans. And it was all white, white like it should be. All them blingity blings had their own section of the bus, you get me? Soon it was every 2-3 days I had to get my haircut, and there was always a new indie band on the go. I can remember them all so well. The Vines, The Hives, The Music, The Feeling. It was all nice music about being cool and taking things easy. Wasn't all up in your face with some 'message'. I remember being out in the clubs and you'd meet a girl and you'd say "do you like this song?" and she'd say "yeah it's allright" and it would be like, so, like, cool. It was all about takin it easy. Chillaxing. And when anyone got too weird or wild you would be like "yeah, whatever." And I had so many great conversations with people about haircuts and phone contracts and being cool.

Alex Niven said...

'00's who are you? Fancy contributing to this blog? An extended version of the above would be good for starters.

Wayne - the government funding aspect is interesting. My own experience of that is folk music in the north-east. There was a great Northern Arts-funded organisation called Folkworks based in Newcastle, which nurtured a very healthy and I guess relatively autonomous folk music culture in the '90s and early '00s. The Unthanks are a product of that, for example. It's very revealing when you compare that to the elite private (in all senses) culture of nu-folk from the latter part of the decade.

KSLN said...

Regarding this last point (which I understood to be state funding via arts organisations) I think it would be a mistake to see that as a solution to this particular problem, or at least a mistake to see that sort of funding as neutral and necessarily encouraging autonomy.

Having known people work for organisations like the Arts Council, and briefly worked for body dealt funding applications for charities, my experience is these are very political decisions (freq. following the tit for tat model) - often taken by people either with political affilations or keen to please the government for obvious reasons (like guranteeing their own future budget). The 'neutrality' is to try to ensure the major players are appeased which means balancing different interests.

Not doubting your folk example, but I imagine folk is something relative hard to take offence to (especially trad. folk)for differing political perspectives, but would question whether this sort of funding would work for more - whats the word - countercultural stuff. Lots of strings attached to that sort of funding.

Obviously state funding can work for some things, especially once things are accepted by the relevant people, but you know not sure it would help in the way I imagine you'd like . . . [drifts quietly away losing thread of point]

Also, when you say 'nu-folk' are talking about like Mumford and Sons or like Newsome/Adem/Alasdair Roberts etc or both?

Alex Niven said...

Hmm. I guess with regard to grime Wayne was talking more about informal "ties" to youth clubs, free courses etc. So maybe two separate things are being conflated.

I take your point that folk might be an exception to the rule. But I guess I'm curious more generally about this issue. Is funding for "countercultural" stuff (I suppose grime, d'n'b, etc) not usually forthcoming? I can see that historically genres like this probably developed without state backing.

At bottom I suppose it is usually the more informal sources of state funding that foster a healthy artistic culture (benefits, free higher education/art school, youth clubs).

Another example of this is The Futureheads, who formed off the back of a local council arts project, I think.

W. Kasper said...

Yeah should make it clear that I don't mean totally state-funded arts (our dreadful Film Council productions being exhibit A). I've worked in that 'industry' myself and much of it is cynical bollocks to tick boxes and protect funding.

Alex got what I mean - the springboard aspect. A basic video-production or cubase course at an innercity youth club or community college can create networks based on shared knowledge and talent. It's up to participants to take it further, but the base has to be there to start with. Similarly with free uni education - cross-class interaction is very healthy in developing ideas, if not creative 'movements'. The whole 90s dance scene had a lot of that. Ditto punk - especially post-punk. If its purely a reserve of the relatively wealthy, then that just reproduces and confirms what they grew up with. Hence the general smug crapness and prejudices of UK media and arts right now.

"OO's" sarky tone and vocab reminds me of a certain troll doing the rounds lately. I may be wrong, but step carefully Alex! We could end up with urophilia photos all over these blogs if your not.

W. Kasper said...

Re: Nu-folk. The very talented Alasdair Roberts is Scottish, which still has free education and less suffocating snobbery than England. His music's very grounded in radical folk traditions. Newsom's American anyway, from a very artistic family, with a tiptop music education. I think what you meant by bland UK nu-folk was the kind of gentrifyin' hipster twats currently turning Manchester into a cultural wasteland.

Alex Niven said...

Yeah I meant Mumford and Sons and Laura Marling et al - the private school contingent that has soundtracked Cameron's inception. I do like the Scottish wing of nu-folk - James Yorkston, King Creosote - though with some reservations about tweeness. The US side of the genre is obviously a whole different ball game - 'fraid I'm an inveterate Joanna Newsom fan.