Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Going on a static journey

Fantastic Hope blogger Alex Niven identified two phases of prevalent drug use on Up, Close and Personal, the first was a ‘radical hedonism’ often found in 80s working class lifestyles and concluded, rather messily, in Mondays-era Pills ‘n Thrills; the second a highly commodified and mediated post-rave ‘pseudo-radical lifestyle hedonism’ which has beset the culture from the mid-90s and seems to still be with us today. Many of those 90s musical figures – Primal Scream, Oasis, Mondays, Shamen – Alex cites had roots in different manifestations of this earlier phase. In this analysis rave and ecstasy can be seen as a diversion between the two more substantive periods, and creatively some came off better than others in using the era to enhance the sound.

It’s symptomatic of the newer phase of drug-use, with its corollary of vacuous public statements of use, that although Oasis clearly reflected both phases (the first as some-time inspiration, the second as their contemporary setting) they would often disavow any notions of deepness and meaning on these topics in their music even as their sound, lyrics and branding attested to their use as source material. Kind of ‘yeah we take drugs’ with a ‘what of it?’ rejoinder as if to play down any analysis. That’s because by this stage one drug was dominating that its users would rather keep out of discourse, cocaine (though pandemic usage of others such as skunk was in vogue too).

Much of the loss of subversive potential from radical hedonism to pseudo-radical lifestyle hedonism is attributable to this one drug, which was nowhere near as prevalent in the 80s and which even its users know rarely enhances a communal buzz let alone any countercultural energy. There’s a certain public guilt to succumbing to this most selfish of highs, leading celebrities to ‘fess up to usage for their own rebel cachet but often to talk about their habits and addictions to the more generic ‘drugs’ when they generally mean cocaine. Nobody minds a dabble, in fact those are the pictures our celebrity-obsessed culture craves to see in the papers and glossy mags and on websites, but we’re embarrassed when it gets to Sheen-like levels of addictive delusion. We always hear Hunter S Thompson still ‘worked’ while on coke but he was trading on past glories and certainly no critically acclaimed gonzo reportage was forthcoming in his later years.

So although fierce polydrug use still abounds around football matches or scuzzy pubs where working-class lads congregate in numbers the effect is certainly different because this one drug dominates. For the in-your-face there’s aggressive defiance; when lines are being chopped up on the pub table, the culture really is Shameless (that public eye thing again, but occlude the reality of a grottier dependency). But most are not that brazen, and it’s telling that the preferred locus for the use of cocaine, and for other, newer drugs like mephedrone and ketamine, and for a longer time crystal meth in the US, is back in the front-room of someone’s flat, with an approved group away from the action. As event-less time passes, there’s an acknowledgement that this is contributing nothing other than blah-blah-blah descriptions of one’s own buzz and, later, one’s own psychosis. In James Frey’s exaggerated crack memoir fellow non-travellers would be identified by the shifty question ‘do you like to party’ which was merely a euphemism for do you want to sit on the sofa and smoke the pipe until you’re hunting for anything left on the carpet. You also hear stories of parties in the margins where there may nominally be DJs or art installations, but really the focus is unfettered drug use. When there really is no interesting story one is willing to tell about coke, its place in public perception is fittingly dangerous but banal, a meaningless transgression.

In the 80s you get the feeling that there was some kind of validity and an effective praxis in turning away from the cultural mainstream, in disconnecting, in carving out little niches and subcultures, with drugs as a major focus of activity. If the drugs are still any guide to culture production in the 90s, it’s no surprise the Creative Industries Taskforces established to tap such alternative energies ended up courting the mediated, symbol-heavy, culture-as-brand, nudge-wink worlds of BritArt and BritPop.
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Blogger W. Kasper said...

'You also hear stories of parties in the margins where there may nominally be DJs or art installations, but really the focus is unfettered drug use. When there really is no interesting story one is willing to tell about coke, its place in public perception is fittingly dangerous but banal, a meaningless transgression."

- My numbing experience of the (early) 00s, down to a T. It wasn't even fun to start with. All 'incidents' surrounding the drug are about bland exchange: looking for it, waiting for it, buying it, sharing it, talking about it, arguing about paying for it; with the cycle continuing - often within the same evening. Dancing, socialising etc. always on the backburner.

My two penneth: it's a drug for the dull and square to feel 'cutting edge' - without any danger of subcultural interaction, emotional honesty, enlightenment etc.

12:20 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well! Coke might be an altogether different experience if there were any of the stuff left! Typically it's gone down to less than 50% purity on the street. E's are worse, 50% purity would be a result, most are just sugar and glucose tabs. And if the shit were pure no need for conversation. Slight elitist prejudice in this article towards drugs and creativity.

2:37 pm  
Blogger Alex Niven said...

Great post.

In some ways, as you allude to, ketamine should share with coke the title for neoliberal-atomist intoxicant par excellence, shouldn't it? Particularly pernicious for its effects on dance culture, which had so much communal potential (still has, arguably).

Thinking about people I know who do a lot of drugs now, it's mostly the straight-laced professional-class types - people with 35K salaries in nebulous jobs in London or Manchester who do a bit of coke or pills at the weekend in the controlled, private environments you talk about. Come to think of it, they're the ones who still smoke fags too ...

All a bit topsy turvy.

6:05 pm  

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