Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Final notes on the decade in music

[Top 10 here, Foreword and Further Reading here, the also-rockers here]

The indulgent Noughties, that much maligned tournant du siècle decade where technological advance seemed only to bring socio-cultural regression, started late and ended early, after the Towers (and the new iPod) and before the credit crunch. With mere days to go before corporatised, time-precious fuckers can start running round saying ‘twenty ten’, the shitty smears of homogenised Cowellpop would suggest the decade creatively came to a spectacularised nought. But with wide-angle lens on I find it hard to agree and would rather back the usual platitudinous ‘there’s good and bad in every decade’, like a neutered panellist on one of Maconie’s trials of pop, as well as agree with Reynolds that there’s far more music of a certain quality to listen to. Not necessarily more bands/acts than ever before (although post-Strokes we went through a stage where it was ‘cool’ to be in a band again), but with digital production technology and online distribution dovetailing with the slow death of the music business more bands were able and willing to build a community of listeners.

In the UK, whether celebrity or someone merely with 47 friends on Facebrick, it has been impossible to ignore the tentacles of Hoxton culture. For all its downside, going out east of Old Street stills guarantee a better, more evolved time than you get in Soho or Notting Hill. But harsh digitised sounds are ubiquitous and arguably a mockery of the time that they could carry real weight in a track. The period that started personally with a late 20s ongoing commitment to the hedonic experience, mainly around a house scene beginning to look as much to Europe’s clicks and cuts as Chicago bang (it was called ‘deep house’ as an in-joke) and taking in all surrounding post-rave genres for impetus, ended very much in necessary consolidation driven by the demands of children, the best insights of previous years usually intact but the habits of previous years and the longing to refeel those scenes sometimes hard to shake off.

Luckily it was no longer just about dancing to loud music in a shared experience. Now I just come home, whack Synth Brittania or the Krautrock doc on and rush off that, or print out and marvel at Rouge’s work on Burial. As the blogosphere blossomed new routes to infotainment became available that junked mainstream soundbite culture, as well as provide rave veterans with a means to bypass the comedown. The futureshock was virtual, here proper writers would fill out the world of scenes past such as post-punk and hardcore (such evocations in part inspiring hauntological musicking) and present such as grime (MP3s supplied). Even better, just a few clicks away was theory applied to that music and much more besides (the terror on war, modernist architecture, capitalist realism). It’s no exaggeration to say that, after the learning void of the university experience and beyond, this was my most productive decade in taking on ideas and my most intense in terms of musical development and appreciation. At its best this environment was a revolutionary usurpation of the tired old NME/MTV mainstream, a viable alternative where you can get all you need. Ignore the banality elsewhere. In fact our corner of the web has come so far that some old-style resentment of the established players has creeped in. Have the top boys and girls ruled the roost for too long? Possibly, but when there is no let-up of the flow, exchange and dissemination of intelligent commentary and cultural artefacts I see no need for a changing of the vanguard (just at a time when Paul Morley made a plea for the elite nature of the cultural commentator in the last Newsnight Review). More likely the commentariat will just go on deepening/diversifying, and these days we play a much bigger part in whom we choose to check as well as ignore.

Thus listening habits have changed, domestically and collectively, much more than any music scene they support. Out and about, the rave as revolutionary site, driver of the altered state, no longer seems valid. In the 90s, people genuinely believed in going further via the dancefloor experience, now there’s a lot more cocaethylene swirling around bodies and a lot more Barleyesque blah blah blah. The dominant scenes all allow a certain alcoholic socialism, the consolidation not just musical. So new zones may be needed now for communal enhancement. Maybe Mark’s onto something with his new collective listening call. The growth of iTunes/iPod culture, though infuriating in public as people blithely descend into MeSpace, can only be a good thing in general musical terms, giving people better access to their music, more ways of experiencing it and the ability to delve deeper much easier. Ditto being able to have a library of tunes on your phone, and Bluetooth for moving them around between your own gadgets or those of your friend’s. Considerable white heat between that and ‘home taping is killing music’.

Having spent a small fortune on 12s over the years, I certainly don’t feel bad about growing my collection from any of the free or cheaper routes available to us now. People say ‘it’s not physical’, ‘you can’t feel a virtual collection’, but I do. I make sure I get all the artwork downloaded, even from mixes, have everything in my preferred order, turn on the various iTunes views and browse my collection (often playing 30-second blasts of each). Get fetishised. And if the guilt pangs grow, Spotify, with its canny iTune esque format, is a good ‘try before you buy’ (but mostly just try) alternative. After all that I have no need of the illegal streams, the Limewires et al. And I still buy vinyl, it’s just like everyone else I can’t be arsed with the specialist shop and order that online too. Been into ‘indie superstore’ Rough Trade East once seen it has opened, when previously I would have been in the Covent Garden branch every week; changing patterns, changing times.

Whatever the mode, whatever the format, my modus operandi of surface skimming – pick off (what I believe to be) the cream in any scene, don’t drown in the dreck, then get out into a different pool and find what’s good there – has increased in this diversified environment. Yet for all that it’s still dance music – London/British, European, American – that turns me on the most. I have doggedly not let the bug go yet, nor do I intend or necessarily see the need to because of the way the blog space accommodates the elders-as-curators. That’s what still gets me – checking the latest beats and sounds, finding out what I like about them and working out what I can do with them in my own micro-entertainment space - that’s the buzz. I know of and actually like a lot of guitar music but most of it just leaves me cold, even the serious stuff with lyrics you’re supposed to be like. I don’t know whether it’s the parasitical need to see what’s hot in all the scenes or some deeper psychological driver of taste, but I still never go too far: I am the centre-left of music’s spectrum, happy to mock my lad-rock friends but honest enough to admit I like a Kasabian or two. The noisiest I go is no big drone, the most street often checked by a sense of inappropriateness for doing so. Find me in a side-street just off the high street – it’s a legal space that takes its inspiration wherever I can find it.

The expanded virtual space is not without issues: too much space is privileged to UK street styles as if it was the true and only revolutionary condition, the only [dance] music that matters. Here, the hardcore continuum debate took on its own life way beyond its original intention. This ignores the fact that nearly everything seems to come back to house (I like the way in his noughties house and techno review Kiran Sande talks of a ‘neat and trippy global pop for the iBook/latte generation’ - here no-one denies they operate in a bourgeois space in stark contrast to the authentic prole vibes of grime and funky). You also feel that music is being made very much informed by the blogs and forums and with them in mind, and that there is too much music-as-music debate, the socio-cultural element taken for granted and arguably even reaffirming the stereotypes.

So I think I would take the 90s, where new sonic shock seemed to come round more often, despite its manifold faults and early co-option into the mainstream (in fact I tend to read the rave boom as just the way of getting the last elements of society – ie, the working class – into alternative consumer options but there was never much chance of it staying revolutionary either culturally or sonically). There was more ability for genuinely unsettling material to get wider acceptance. In the noughties, grime did the most in terms of novelty, but couldn’t finish the job due to the insistence on reality, while electroclash, electrohouse, dubstep and funky house (notably these are mostly compound terms; funky insists on decoupling the house to hide the reality that it really is just another house) can only be viewed in iterative terms. Give us the ostensibly new.

At the level of subculture there has been another development that has had insufficient coverage – the rise of ‘burlesque’ nights where a much more varied roster of acts (comedy, drama troupes, etc), a bit of sexed-up titillation and a lack of musical puritanism feed a decadent, carefree spirit that dance music nights now struggle to match. The fad for fancy dress/dressing up (which rave had initially razed) is having a resurgence. All the socio-musical iterations driven by fashionable or knowingly unfashionable youth (that now pass me by) in one sense don’t really matter as this continuous change is what drives popular music, but the burlesque scene operates as a difference from that and is arguably helping to feed a new spirit (electro-swing anyone?). Pity then that I haven’t been to any of these dos then, nearest I got is cabaret type charity fund raisers.

I started this decade utterly indifferent to the rise of Reality pop but by the end, reduced to the realisation that staying in and switching on often comprised my Saturday night, was guiltily checking out the acts and marvelling at the production excesses (all that intermittent noise and flashing on stage) on X-Factor; if only to be au courant for the following week because that’s all most seem to talk about. Whether X-Factor has really had that much of a deteriorative effect on pop music is questionable; the charts are regularly ruled by a small cabal of svengalis who end up producing a very narrow-minded strain of pop. Just before them we moaned about Spiceworld, Take Shat, East 17 and Blue-style manufactured boy bands and in groups like S-Club 7 the sneaky rebirth of slickly choreographed, smileface, goodtime pop, the precursor to all this. And it’s fair to say that in such blandout masquerading as melodrama Cowell and co have already sown the seeds of their own downfall and, as we have seen with the Rage against McElderry campaign, people are hankering after a bit of difference after a decade of it. So it’s the wider culture rather than pop itself that has felt the pain of this poverty of aspiration; increasing numbers thinking this the only route to market/stardom/out of the mundane, etc, when there are always better options elsewhere.
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