Nostalgia and Futurology

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Modern pop music came to prominence at the same time as the invention and rise of the teenager, a concept (and grouping) with which it has had a long, sweaty symbiosis. While pop may be at least 70 years old, it still carries associations with, and connotations of, youth and modernity. Yet while the dawn of the teenager is inextricably linked to guitar-based rock and roll music, the past 20-odd years has seen the rise of poptimism, which seeks to paint guitar-based ‘rock’ as conservative and backwards against the futuristic-leanings of a self-consciously ‘artificial’ dance-oriented chart pop. I’ve always found this attempted delineation to be weak and messy, a position which I feel has been vindicated the more dominant poptimism has become in the media. Shows like The Big Reunion and acts like One Direction (one of whose biggest hits was widely viewed as being an…homage…to The Who) have shown that conservatism and nostalgia are by no means solely confined to rock music.

The sway of poptimism is such, however, that the latter examples aren’t seen as retrospective. The Big Reunion may explictly involve reforming pop acts who were briefly popular in the 90s but, when placed against the mythical bogeyman of conservative rock, it’s viewed as an open-minded celebration. One Direction may make derivative music but their talent show origins, their youth and their appeal to young girls conspire to present them as exciting and modern. Nostalgia, then, is elided to the point where it becomes meaningless: little more than a tool to bash already-disliked acts with rather than any considered and/or sincere aversion to conservatism. It is enough to be heard as loudly opposed to conservatism, no matter how incoherent this may be upon examination. What matters is perception.

This warping of ‘nostalgia’ from meaning a sentimental yearning for ‘the good old days’ to a largely-empty signifier to be deployed against acceptable targets has permeated music criticism. You can view it in how acts like Prince and David Bowie were warmly welcomed when they stopped messing about (trying new things) and instead delivered albums which played to their archetypal images. Again, this was very clearly playing to nostalgia but in aligning themselves with audience expectations they opened a space for fluid, unforced perceptions. We don’t want to be seen to be conservative but we also don’t like it when acts make things hard for us by not being what we want them to  be; so, when they oblige us in the latter, we tell ourselves that they have ‘returned to form’ rather than ‘allowed us to love our own idea of them again’. It’s noticeable that this rationalisation is very rarely wheeled out for acts who haven’t deviated from who we want them to be – acts who conversely can end up as whipping posts for faux anti-conservatism because there has been no disruption there, nothing for them to return to us from.

The genius of Bowie’s The Next Day, one I still don’t think is widely appreciated, is how it completely understood this state of affairs and made it integral to the album and its campaign. The actual music wasn’t particularly different from Bowie’s previous few albums and I’ve no doubt that had it been released a decade previous, it would have quickly faded from view. Yet there was the ten year disruption and it was this Bowie made use of. It wasn’t just nostalgia presented as modernity – it artfully used the listener’s expectations to make it the first post-nostalgic album.

Manics_Futurology_Art_600This brings me to Futurology, the new Manic Street Preachers album which is providing them with the best reviews they’ve had in almost 20 years. It’s a very good album but I find it curious that most of these reviews have been focusing on the band’s ‘reinvention’, their ability to take the ostentatious trappings of Krautrock, Berlin-era Bowie and early-Simple Minds and craft their own ‘masterpiece‘ from the ruins. I find it curious because despite all the advance word, Futurology isn’t a musical reinvention at all – there’s almost nothing on there that a Manics fan won’t have heard from them before. In fact, from the moment the melodic opening title track riff recalls the band’s commercial peak through the post-punk blast of Sex, Power, Love and Money, the Know Your Enemy-jangle of The Next Jet to Leave Moscow and the energised Lifeblood-sheen of Walk Me To The Bridge, it’s a record which feels steeped in the Manics’ history. The same is true lyrically – the latter song’s clear references to Richey (despite the band’s denials) have already been noted while TNJTLM finds them renouncing their Know Your Enemy jaunt to Cuba (everything must go, indeed!). Let’s Go To War, meanwhile, is presented as the final part of a newly-formulated trilogy and its line ‘don’t forget we love you still’ harks back to both previous instalments (You Love Us/Masses Against the Classes). There are also, as noted in The Quietus review, several nods to particular aspects of working-class Welsh history threaded throughout the album.

It’s been noted that Futurology is the sister album of last year’s Rewind The Film. Less noted is the clear contrast in the album titles – the past and the future, or rather an idea of the future. The title track of RTW was an ode to the comfort of nostalgia: “rewind the film once more/turn back the pages of my post/rewind the film once more/I want the world to see it all.” The video for this and that album’s other two singles formed a short film about working-class Wales and the impact of the Miners’ Strike. The mood of Rewind The Film meant that critics easily identified its obsession with the past, with nostalgia. It also had a sense of anxiety for an unknown future which seemed certain to be warped and alien, irrevocably broken from the comforting myths of the past.

The aesthetic and publicity of Futurology seems to have blinded many to the fact that it’s a continuation of these themes – and one which draws far more heavily on the Manics’ musical past. In its way, then, it also understands and plays with this post-nostalgia age. It offers a frictionless return to previous highs, mixing nods to a more aggressive and radical past with a distancing from (and sometimes apologising for) it (this distancing has been crucial to the Manics’ success with a particular kind of critic, who could never have stomached their early belligerence without that gap). It offers nostalgia under the guise of modernity, drawing on the past to present a comforting, easily-digestible image of a future. “We’ll come back one day… we never really went away. ” This is Futurology.

 

Zombie Pop

I’ve written quite a bit about the current contempt for pop music which bubbles away beneath the surface even of much ‘pop fandom’, not least in my recent Lily Allen piece. As I noted there, pop isn’t taken seriously as an art form yet a trite populism means that it’s instinctively defended against any and all criticism. When the banal output of One Direction is celebrated as a joyful cultural force, the pressure to do something great is pretty much non-existent. Add to this the fact that record sales are in decline, resulting in labels increasingly relying on their star artists for revenue (which itself comes more and more from advertising and endorsement deals) and you have a recipe for conservatism. The results of this have been unavoidable this year in most of the big pop releases: Prism’s dry self-denial; Gaga and Justin’s need to smother their music in tortured conceits to lend it ‘worth’; Miley’s ‘will this do?’ singles-and-filler effort. There’s been a singular lack of vision and, more to the point, a lack of daring. If Thriller was the music industry’s Star Wars, it feels like we’re at the stage where the results are market-driven dreck akin to Pearl Harbour.

Britney Spears’ Britney Jean is the last big pop release of the year and (quite remarkably) it’s possibly the worst. Talked up in advance as being her “strongest album ever” and comparable to Madonna’s classic Ray of Light, in actuality it’s completely wretched. This shouldn’t be surprising: no artist has better personified the lack of respect afforded to pop music than Britney. Yet there have been moments, most notably Blackout, where Britney’s blankness has been put to brilliant use; for the most part however, she has cruised on her celebrity and the indulgence of beguiled fans who project themselves into the void. The lead single from Britney Jean, Work Bitch, was depressingly generic fare which very firmly fell into the latter camp. Interestingly enough, though, the single bombed.

If being a hyper-famous void wasn’t enough to sell that song, Britney Jean as an album is very clearly fucked. It’s a quite extraordinary listen – decay and decline seep from its every second. The opener Alien, a William Orbit variation on the existential angst of fame, is actually a decent song but Britney’s vocal is breathtakingly terrible. To say it’s processed would be an understatement – it sounds like some bizarre other-worldly approximation of what a human sounds like, sterile and vacuum-packed. It offers no warmth and no trace of emotion, only a cold technological dejection. As noted, Blackout had great fun with this – here it’s clear that we’re supposed to buy into these vocals being ‘heartfelt’ and ‘real’. It’s such a miserable black hole that the English impersonation of Work Bitch sounds positively sparkling in comparison.

If the album is hobbled by this from the off it’s mortally wounded by a succession of similarly dead-eyed conveyor belt contributions from will.i.am, David Guetta, Sia and a host of others. The ‘personal’ lyrics consist of little more than sweeping allusions to everyday emotions which allow chasms of ambiguity. Passenger is a prime example, seeming certain to be interpreted as being about Britney’s conservatorship yet being a standard love song with lyrics which just seem sinister if taken in a personal context (if you’re in your 30s and deemed to be incapable of managing your own affairs, singing “this is living, yeah!” about the situation is more than a little twisted.)

Britney is a zombie popstar, staggering on long past the point when blood last pumped through her veins and feasting on the low expectations of a catatonic audience. The cracks, however, are bursting wide open. It’s simply astonishing that, throughout the album, other voices crop up to paper over Britney’s contribution; at one point (on Body Ache) it actually sounds like someone else takes an entire verse. The fact that the people behind the record either think no-one will notice or (perhaps more likely) that no-one will care is remarkable. I suppose it’s a fair enough expectation when you have an artist who never actually sings during her ‘live’ shows but you surely need to have a semblance of respect for your audience?! Yet respect is entirely absent here. Britney Jean is one of the most depressing albums I have ever heard. The glimmer of hope lies in the failure of Work Bitch, offering the possibility that even Britney’s own fanbase are tiring of an act that is increasingly less about illusion and more about derangement. It’s ironic, after all, that in the end it’s the listener who has to work to maintain some pretence that this is a functional record.

Maybe, just maybe, this will indeed be pop’s Pearl Harbour (movie). There has to come some point where we say ‘enough now’, quit making excuses for the phoned in crud and start expecting again. Perhaps it’s already happening, with artists like Lorde enjoying the kind of swift and enormous success which testifies to a malnourished audience craving sustenance. On the other hand, One Direction sold over 100,000 copies of their album in one day this week and will be joined by Gary Barlow at the top of Sunday’s album chart. The battle lines are drawn: what do you want your pop to be?

My review of James Arthur’s debut is up. As night follows day, anyone emerging from X Factor who aspires to anything other than acting as a conduit for interchangeable POP! is instinctively attacked and mocked – I’ve already seen Arthur widely being labelled as ‘pretentious’, ‘bitter’, ‘angry’ etc with countless sneering references to ‘authenticity’ and ‘credibility’. Tedious beyond belief yet it’s kinda not the done thing to parse any negative effect which X Factor may have on pop music. You need only spend a few minutes on the #xfactor tag on a Saturday evening to see how degrading and tawdry the whole thing has become. It has an air of the colosseum about it – folk really think nothing of tearing these (mostly) kids apart in the most visceral, vicious ways. Yet despite treating it with utter contempt, the habitual cry of ‘snob!’ will go up whenever anyone dares to criticise the show, as if participating in the weekly hatefest is to be ‘down to earth’. Odd, to say the least.

James Arthur – James Arthur

Review: Pure Heroine – Lorde

Lorde wants you to know that she’s different. Much has been made of the fact that “Royals,” her platinum-selling breakout hit, was inspired by a cool disdain for the bling rhetoric of “jet planes, islands, tigers on a gold leash” which Lorde felt dominated the pop landscape as she grew up in New Zealand. Certainly its opening claim, “I’ve never seen a diamond in the flesh,” can’t help but seem like an arch rejoinder to chart queen Rihanna. There’s nothing new, of course, about youthful rebellion against an ostensibly monolithic culture, but “Royals” almost feels like a watershed moment: the very deliberate cross-pollination that has characterized chart pop since rap and (more recently) electronic dance music encroached upon its sales is ingrained in the 16-year-old Lorde. It feels entirely organic that she expresses her anti-materialist sentiment over a sparse backing owing much to hip-hop and also drawing on the lo-fi aesthetic typical of British post-dubstep artists like Burial, The xx and James Blake.

Lorde’s story so far has more than the whiff of a more iconic British artist around it. Like Kate Bush, she was discovered as a teenager and has been mentored until her emergence on the scene, seeming fully formed and sounding quite unlike anything else around. The confident introspection of “Royals” is typical of Lorde’s debut, Pure Heroine, an album which is striking in its precocious self-awareness.  It shouldn’t seem so unusual that a teenager can be so articulate, of course – perhaps expectations have been corrupted by the asinine gloss of contemporary teenage artists such as Justin Bieber and One Direction. Whatever the reason, it’s disarming to hear Lorde’s smouldering voice singing lyrics that convey an authentic and engaging honesty. Her difference is no teenage pose, then, and being as savvy as she is talented Lorde draws attention to this contrast at several points throughout the album – most notably in “Team” where she drily notes “I’m kinda over getting told to throw my hands up in the air…so there.”

Aside from distinguishing herself from mainstream pop Lorde also draws on more traditional ideas of the outsider, with the album from its title onwards portraying an eagerness for a life lived beyond traditional mores. By the time we get to the big reveal of penultimate track “White Teeth Teens” we know what’s coming: “I’ll let you in on something big – I’m not a white teeth teen.”  This ‘I’m not like other girls’ shtick rarely falls into cliché, however, with Lorde’s words frequently seeming more literary than lyrical (her mother is a poet and she has spoken of being influenced by Kurt Vonnegut and Raymond Carver). The wry “Buzzcut Season”, for example, would make Dorothy Parker proud while the opaque love story of “400 Lux” hinges on delightful lines like “I love these roads where the houses don’t change (and I like you)”.  For all the tales of messy romance and allusions to dysfunction, however, the conquering fantasies of “Still Sane” (“I’m little but I’m coming for the crown”) suggest a steely ambition and assurance which fundamentally separate her from the simpering subordination of the oft-cited in comparison Lana Del Rey.

The music quite rightly gives these dazzling lyrics ample space to be noticed. Sparse electronic backing couches Lorde’s vocals on most of these songs and “Royals’” trick of multi-tracking the chorus is repeated to the point of overuse. Nonetheless there is novelty here: the club-friendly “Ribs” repeats its mid-tempo verses as more frenetic choruses riding on a 4/4 beat, an unusual but inspired touch, while an observation that “the sun’s starting to light up when we’re walking home’ is met in the final syllable by a gloriously evocative harmony line in “Glory and Gore”. “Team”, with its Robyn-esque radio-friendly melancholia, is perhaps the most conventional pop song here yet it begins with a processed acapella vocal which becomes more distorted until it loops and falls beneath crunchy drums. The songs unravel like tightly wound coils, bursting with energy and never outstaying their welcome. On paper the starkness should be repetitive but Pure Heroine riffs on a very deliberate, expansive severity. When the closing “A World Alone” adds guitar and sound effects to its dynamic drum patterns and looped vocals, it doesn’t feel like a revelation.

This final song includes a lyric which is destined to be much quoted: “maybe the internet raised us or maybe people are jerks.” That sharp and witty response to the ‘Generation Me Me Me’ handwringing perfectly captures Lorde’s appeal for a generation undoubtedly tired of being spoken for.  In Lorde they, and indeed we, have a compelling, articulate and contemporary voice. Pure Heroine is most certainly only the beginning.

4.5/5

Teenage Kicks

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I didn’t watch Channel 4’s ‘Crazy About One Direction’ last week. I didn’t watch it because I’m 33 years old and, ya know, One Direction. We’re apparently not supposed to say that these days. Instead we’re meant to encourage the notion that we’re really down with what pop kids like, that people enjoying something is reason enough for its existence, that the fandom you experience when you’re an adolescent is this pure, undiluted, beautiful fandom that becomes corrupted by the horrors of adulthood. It’s typical of that ‘cloying positivity’ which I’ve previously written about and is also tackled well here:

We all know the types; they’ve just discovered memes, they earnestly listen to shit pop music designed for children, they watch TV talents shows with a genuine excitement – they are people whose cultural interests are almost exclusively based in novelty. Everything is ‘amazing’ not because it’s exceptional or out of the ordinary, but because amazing is now the go-to word to describe most anything, ironically or otherwise. 

It should be emphasised (because some will deliberately try and avoid it) that this is aimed at the overwhelmingly 25 year old and over ‘critics’ who write reams defending 1D fans and their ilk, not the 1D fans themselves. No-one is surprised when teenagers get hugely excited by pop music. Indeed, the 1D documentary was nothing new – in my time I’ve seen similar shows on obsessive fans of Britney Spears, Take That, Madonna. Interestingly enough, several of these previous shows featured many male fans, something which I gather was missing from the 1D documentary. This is important because the response to the 1D documentary has overwhelmingly rested on two things: a sentimental, banal appeal to feminism and Poptimism. Two things which, of course, are catnip for much of our modern media and certainly current music journalism.

Let’s look at the Poptimism first. Of course we’ve had the ‘oh people are making fun of these fans because it’s pop music’ response and corresponding attack on people who obsess over guitars, ‘authenticity’ blah blah blah oh God not this again. We won’t dwell on the fact that this ‘Rockist’ attitude is so ridiculed and unfashionable that anyone sincerely making it (and more often than not you don’t actually find many people making it, it’s just this floating spectre) may as well be standing up and saying ‘I’M A PAEDOPHILE’. Instead we’ll take it at face value and agree – of course loving pop is no less valid than loving rock or indie or whatever. Great. What this argument always does however is to conflate all pop music and all pop fans. You may love Taylor Swift and Rihanna but as soon as you say that you think One Direction are pretty terrible, you become this snobbish archetype. Indeed, even on the fans’ ‘side’ there’s no recognition that pop fans love a myriad of different acts (pop and otherwise) and that loads of 1D fans think The Wanted are shit, and vice-versa, and wider still. No, rock music is not inherently superior to pop music. Running with this to the point where we refuse to acknowledge that some rock is better than some pop (and of course the reverse is true) or more importantly, that there is a lot of dreadful pop music out there is absurd and doesn’t suggest that anyone making the argument takes pop music all that seriously themselves. Current pop music journalism does seem built on this extremely shaky bedrock, a cheapness which elevates dreck and kitsch as celebratory and refuses to sincerely consider pop in any social/political/cultural terms as an important art form. We can see this right now in the response to Lady Gaga’s ‘ArtPop’ project where she is very loudly and ostentatiously banging on about bringing ‘art’ and ‘pop’ together. I’ve yet to see a single pop writer say, ‘hold on – pop already is art and we don’t need these very obvious signifiers taken from the ‘art world’ to tell us otherwise’. If you constantly treat pop music as some big cheap joke where no-one can make any critical judgements without being ‘the enemy’, you cannot turn around and complain that other people then think of it as cheap.

Of course, the ‘pop’ we’re discussing here is very much of a type. Spend any length of time on a British pop music site and you’ll find sneering references to artists like Jake Bugg, Mumford & Sons, Coldplay. Matt Cardle was torn apart on these sites when he won X Factor, seemingly because he played guitar and didn’t want to make dance-pop. It doesn’t matter that these acts may have legions of teenage (female) fans – they’re acceptable targets and no-one is going to devote any time to writing columns defending them. If the documentary last week had been called ‘Crazy About Coldplay’ the Twittersphere would have been united in its derision. This may seem a rather trite point but it’s an important one. The photo at the top of this depicts some ‘crazy’ fans of The Beatles. The impulse now is to slot One Direction and their fans alongside this yet there is a clear demarcation in how obsessive fans of The Beatles, Elvis, the Rolling Stones, Madonna, Michael Jackson are viewed as compared to obsessive fans of pop acts which pretty much no-one expects to be around in 3 years’ time. The former could all easily be labelled ‘pop acts’ but that instantly makes the Poptimist defence of 1D look very silly indeed.

The feminist arguments being wheeled out are also fascinating, suggesting that there is a nasty strain of misogyny infecting the ridicule which these extreme examples of 1D fans are subjected to. They’re particularly fascinating coming so soon after the ‘internet troll’ hysteria which gripped the media during the fallow Summer months. When (it seems overwhelmingly) young men have been seen to send abuse and threats on Twitter, there has been a mass outcry. There have been hand-wringing debates about ‘the crisis of masculinity’. There have even been arrests. When One Direction fans sent abuse and death threats, however, many leapt to their defence. I previously wrote about a similar response re: Paris Brown’s tweets. In short, young men sending abuse online are pathologised and even criminalised. When young women do it, however, there is a significant movement to at least understand their actions, at most actually excuse them and present them as the victims. Why the double-standards?! Especially when the vast majority of One Direction fans are clearly not going to be people who send death threats and virulently defending those that do makes no such distinction. It’s also notable that, as mentioned, previous comparable documentaries have featured obsessive male fans. It’s curious that when some of the largely young, male fanbase of Lady Gaga took to attacking Adele’s weight no-one was making any effort to excuse them. Yet the peculiar blend of Poptimism and an uncritical strand of feminism meant that when Lady Gaga turned her own weight into a cause célèbre, this behaviour was erased and Gaga became the victim of horrid men online.

It’s no big shakes that teenagers in the throes of adolescence may act rather…strangely over things. Most of us have been there. What’s different now is that we have social media and so behaviour which previously might have been confined to our bedrooms is easily transmitted around the world for all to see. There are also studies tentatively suggesting that social media is making people more narcissistic and less able to empathise with others. This is toxic when added to a stage of life where you already have an entire universe exploding inside your head. What shouldn’t have changed, though, is the realisation (and expectation) that it’s a period of life which you grow out of. I’ve seen so much written in the past week presenting obsessive teenage fandom as some idealised state of being that I’ve wondered if I’m going a bit ‘crazy’ myself. At 14 you’re not living through some magical period of ‘real’ emotion. You’re growing up. It’s a formative time, certainly, and a lot of great stuff happens but it’s not being horrific for the older people writing about this to acknowledge that yeah, your personality, intellect and emotional state mature and you look back at when you wanted nothing more than to touch a pop star with a mixture of fondness, confusion and embarrassment. Suggesting that it’s somehow a good thing to hold onto that state is idiotic and even harmful. It’s another thing we’re apparently not supposed to say. We’re not supposed to acknowledge that adolescence play a huge part in phenomenon like One Direction – we’re being ‘patronising’ if we do. I rather think that if you’re not a teenage fan yourself, you’re being patronising in pretending that things don’t change, that your relationship with music and its creators develops and that fandom can endure and develop alongside that.

Springsteen and I

It occurred to me while reading these thoughts on One Direction and fandom from Lucy Robinson that one of the greatest aspects of Springsteen & I (which I saw last night) is that it openly celebrates unadulterated fandom from the kind of music listener who is commonly presented as a ‘snob’ these days. Bruce Springsteen is pretty much the archetypal ‘old man with a guitar’ of our age, held up as emblematic of ‘rockism’ and beloved of the kind of people who could never listen to Ke$ha. Yet the fans in the film (ranging from kids through to pensioners) are as excitable, as enthusiastic and as devoted as the most hysterical One Directioner, It’s a very sweet and heart-warming depiction of the profound importance which music plays in the lives of those of us who’ve let the magic in; it’s also a moving tribute to the relationships which this can lead to. A mother proudly watches as her 10 year old son shows off the close-up photo of Bruce he managed to take after they both attended his concert; a couple reminisce about how they initially bonded over their mutual fandom and dance around their kitchen to a tinny stereo, lamenting that they’ve never been able to see Bruce live; a middle-aged woman explains how her first Bruce concert changed her, awakening a previously-dormant sexuality and a newfound appreciation for rock ‘n’ roll. In one of the loveliest moments a woman who could be a grandmother films herself alone in some woods (her first ever video, apparently) as she speaks about how Bruce is one of her oldest friends even though he’s never met her.

What the film offers which a One Direction equivalent couldn’t possibly duplicate is an appreciation of the musical relationships which endure and which sustain us. More than acting as a soundtrack to their lives, these people speak time and again of how Bruce’s songs are part of their being and how they offer the kind of intimacy which allows them to feel that they are seeing some kind of truth regarding life. One man speaks of how the lyrics are such that he feels he can smell Bruce’s coffee and share in Bruce’s failures and triumphs, an observation which reduces him to tears. A woman in her 20s speaks about her job and how Bruce’s music has helped her to accept that it’s ok to have a degree that she doesn’t use in her job as a truck-driver. It’s fandom but it’s also didactic and transformational. Bruce himself gets this in an after-credits scene where he meets some of the fans from the film. Asked what motivates him to get on stage every night, he explains simply that music changed his life for the better and he wants to be able to give that gift to other people. This is pretty much exactly what I meant when I wrote previously that caring about what they did was the most fundamental thing an artist could offer. The intense, ephemeral love for a short-lived pop act is something many of us experience and it’s great while it lasts but we’re kinda not supposed to acknowledge that it’s a temporary rush which probably has more to do with our own adolescent states than anything else.  It’s seen as patronising to say that and preferable to pretend that we don’t ever change . Yet we do and the music which speaks to us evolves and changes in turn. If we’re lucky, the artists whom we love at 13 will change us, inspire us to check out more music, books etc, If we’re lucky, they’ll develop as we do and we’ll have a hell of a journey together. One Direction are clearly aimed at children and no doubt speak to their experiences but their music would be pretty useless at capturing the peaks and troughs of a 33-year old (unless it’s a particularly stunted one). Maybe they’ll progress, as (the far superior) Take That did but there’s nothing wrong with recognising that acts being loved by lots of kids isn’t a huge virtue in and of itself. What we rather should acknowledge is that our love for music doesn’t diminish with age. It’s no less ‘pure’ just because you have a life, responsibilities, problems and passions which take you away from it. Rather our relationship with music deepens and it permeates us in ways we couldn’t possibly begin to quantify or adequately describe. It’s a great thing and it should be celebrated.

Do You Get It? Some Thoughts on Music Criticism

If you’re one of the few unfortunates who reads my blog with any regularity, you’ll be bored to death of me bemoaning the state of music criticism. It’s a subject I return to often, particularly focusing on the lame ‘post-modern 101’ refusal to be overtly critical of POP! music and instead elevate some properly rubbish music with some half-baked nonsense about how authenticity isn’t real, maaaaan. Last year I attempted to sum up my thoughts in a ‘manifesto for pop‘ and now Neil Kulkarni has written a blog which contains a lot of the same points made far, far more entertainingly. There are so many sections from it which I could quote at length – I won’t, you should just read it – but I’ll begin with what was point 7 in my ‘manifesto’, which means quoting myself cos I’m a dick:

7. Don’t patronise young pop fans or use them to justify crap pop. A common response to criticisms of certain pop artists these days is to say ‘the kids like it’. What’s forgotten here is that just as lots of adults like dross, so do lots of kids. Why are we so afraid of thinking this? Watching ‘Crossfire Hurricane’ the other evening I was struck by the scenes from the early career of The Rolling Stones where girls in their early teens were fanatical about them. Just as teens (and younger) throughout the past 50 years have loved Elvis, Little Richard, The Beatles, Madonna, Michael Jackson, Taylor Swift, Beyonce. And loads have hated these artists and loved countless other artists who rarely (if ever) trouble the charts. Every time someone (usually at least double the age of the people they’re talking about) defends something terrible with an appeal to ‘the kids’, they’re talking rubbish.

Kulkarni writes at length about this, noting the “pre-emptive whingeing” wherein reviewers observe that it’s surely only old bores who could possibly dislike whatever it is they’re discussing. I’ve stuck One Direction up there because the response to them from music critics who haven’t been 16 in quite some time is pretty emblematic of this trend. I’ve observed circle jerks on Twitter where various writers congratulate themselves on their ability to tolerate 1D, assuring each other that it’s mean and pointless to criticise them as they’re ‘not aimed at them’. Thinking about that for more than 30 seconds reveals it to be patronising rubbish – as Kulkarni puts it:

Young people want to be spoken to across the table, not condescendingly DOWN to by the simplifications and lazy dumbness of those young enough to know better or the embarassing sticking-up-for-the-kids type shit older pop writers imbibe in to stay the right side of their juniors.

Well, he doesn’t just ‘put it’ like that, he absolutely nails it. The writers who indulge in this sort of response are absolutely terrified of looking like they don’t get it and so hedge their bets rather than giving their actual opinion. They condescend to allow the kids to listen to their rubbish pop because hey, they’d never actually listen to it themselves would they? It’s not for them! So there is no allowance for the fact that pop can be great and it can be dreadful. No distinction made between young folk with their infinite varieties of taste or recognition that plenty of teenagers regard a group like 1D with contempt. Those of us who love music to such a pathological degree that we bang on about it constantly will all share memories of songs, artists and albums that took our little ideas of what music was out of their box, smashed them in front of our eyes and took us outside into an enormous, terrifying, wonderful world. When I was 14 I didn’t want to hear older people telling me that I was allowed to like Let Loose or Doop – in fact I started reading the ‘adult’ music press religiously and devouring every album which received rave reviews, every artist who sounded like they’d changed the game. I didn’t want my music to exist in some gloopy neoliberal fucktopia where everything had equal value as long as someone bought it. I wanted – and I loved – writers who reached out of the page, grabbed me by the collar and said ‘listen to this, it will change your fucking life’.

It’s a no-brainer that your tastes will develop as you age. That’s not to say that you necessarily stop liking certain kinds of music but, as you clock up life experiences and develop emotionally, different songs and artists speak to you in different ways. Personally speaking I don’t think a teenage me could ever have loved Leonard Cohen in the way I do now – I needed to live a bit before I could inhabit his songs. The point is that you do get different as you get older and you do have different perspectives – if you don’t you’re either dead inside or an idiot – and all a critic can do is bring that to the table. They can’t second-guess what the response of someone 20 years younger than themselves might be; they can’t make excuses for music they think is shit because they think great music is only for older people. I overwhelmingly write about how this is done to pop (Poptimism) but Kulkarni’s particular focus is on landfill indie. It gets around.

I think part of this trend is the related move towards a cloying ‘positivity’ where WRITING THIS THIS SCREAAAAAAAM ZOMG!!! about everything and anything is seen as more worthy than actually being a critic. The responses to Kulkarni’s blog (discussed here) are almost uniformly examples of this: he’s called ‘bitter’, ‘angry’, a deluded nostalgist. People make trite comments about how it’s so easy to hate things, contrasting this with the ostensibly ‘pure’ and ‘productive’ overblown love for even the most insipid rubbish which passes for so much music writing these days. Tellingly, there are quite a few responses which attack Kulkarni for not being paid for his writing – indeed, there’s one on his own blog. They speak volumes. What is, after all, the value of an opinion which hasn’t been paid for? What is an appreciation, a demolition, a response to art if you can’t get it printed in the NME or on Yahoo Music? It gives ample fuel to what Alex Niven writes here:

Unfortunately the mainstream of music journalism right now appears to be dominated by a peculiarly virulent strain of braindead consumer hedonism, by people who simply don’t acknowledge that pop music can be debated about in politico-cultural terms. It would be (sort of) alright if these people were cognisant of their position, but depressingly I fear that they’re just moronic capitalistic yes-people for whom pop music is a leisure pursuit and nothing more. 

We’re given a glimpse into a cosy world of paid writers, getting their music and gigs for free and thinking that this makes their opinion more important than the music fans whom they occasionally condescend to defend if they think it reflects well on them. I was thinking about this again regarding the responses to The Knife’s gigs. Many claims were made that people expecting a GIG were ‘missing the point’. In this interview the following, quite insanely patronising, question is asked:

In a strange way, the complaints are almost like a critique of capitalism in themselves. I think it’s a pretty recent development, this sense of entitlement among fans to what artists should or should not do on stage: which songs they should perform, the manner in which they should present them. It’s almost like ticket-holders imagine themselves to be stakeholders in the band.

I say ‘question’, it’s more a plea to The Knife to recognise that the interview is one of the elite who ‘gets it’. Somewhat ironically given the ‘critique of capitalism’ line, the interviewer’s refusal or inability to seriously tackle the contradictions and problems inherent in The Knife’s show but rather agree with them at every turn causes Niven’s accusation of “capitalistic yes-people” to rush into your head. Obviously those people, those sheep, who bought tickets to see a band they loved and wanted to enjoy and didn’t enjoy it – they’re so entitled, such capitalists. They lack the appreciative skills of the critic (who probably had the added bonus of a free spot) who doesn’t actually need to be made to think themselves but can see that lesser mortals need to “question themselves a bit”. It’s another circle jerk, another self-congratulatory sneer from the balcony above yet fuelled by the same terror of being seen to ‘not get it’ as insincere 1D adoration. The alternative is not getting it or, even worse, being bitter, being negative.

What’s fundamentally missed here is that responses to The Knife’s shows, and writing more generally, can and should say something themselves. Criticism can be a transformational art form. Clearly much of what we read in the press is very strictly governed by diktats (albeit sometimes self-imposed) that constrain the response to ‘this is good/bad’ and it’s precisely for that reason that sneering at Kulkarni for his unpaid passion is so, so idiotic and tedious. Overwhelmingly, the best music criticism I read is on the fringes – in smaller sites or blogs rather than in the traditional places. The last time I picked up Q Magazine (the David Bowie issues) I was pretty appalled by most of what I read. There’s nothing challenging, nothing illuminative, no sense that the critic can have a role beyond flattering ego (primarily their own) and saying ‘yes, you can spend your £10 on this’. Perhaps The Knife’s interviewer wouldn’t unquestioningly accept the assertion that their show can make people ‘question themselves a bit’ if music writing wasn’t so currently posited on the basis that the critic is a species apart – an implicit assumption which is made all the more absurd by the failure of most of these people to actually ever express any view other than the most obvious one. The only way in which the critic is ‘separate’ is that they are in a tiny minority of people who are privileged enough (by this I don’t necessarily mean financially – time, opportunity, abillity and more come to mind) to write at length about this stuff. As such, there is an obligation to actually criticise, in its broadest term. Argue, destroy, defend, adore – just show some fucking passion and some backbone and accept that looking like a bitter idiot who doesn’t get it isn’t actually all that bad sometimes.