I observed in my recent blog about Cheryl Cole that the logical conclusion of the arguments usually wheeled out to defend her role in pop was music originating with computers, with pop fans rooting for their brand of choice. This column in The Guardian is quite timely, then, in taking that possibility and using it to ask what ‘art’ is. Many would argue that it is merely an aesthetic, and largely an individualistic one at that – if I like something, it is art. This is, in fact, the view of many Cheryl fans who have moved a step beyond attempting to justify her as a popstar – when Lucy Jones of The Telegraph criticised Cheryl yesterday, she received several replies pointing out that Cheryl ‘brought pleasure’ to many people and that was all that mattered. On a very fundamental level it’s almost impossible to argue against this – people have different tastes and ideas and woe betide anyone who is seen to be attempting to impose their own onto others. If we step away from pop music, however, I think this argument is far less persuasive. In the ‘high art’ forms, such as literature or fine art, there are readily accepted contexts in which works are judged. We are able to recognise and discuss technique, form, an evolving yet nonetheless fixed history. Indeed, without this context the study and teaching of these forms would be impossible. It is a context which has been forged by human creativity and effort – sometimes affected by technology, certainly, but not replaced by it. We could program a computer to faithfully replicate many of these techniques etc but however satisfying the result, the machine would not, could not, move the form on. Here, then, it seems obvious that ‘art’ requires a human hand.

I will never forget the trauma that was studying Shakespeare at university, where we would spend hours poring over specific paragraphs and unpicking the depths contained within them. I could never quite believe that one artist could have been so skilled, so astoundingly talented. Aside from the poetry of Shakespeare’s verse and prose (and how dismissive that seems!), his plays are packed with references and allusions to history, religion, mythology, other literature and the culture and politics of the period. This requires both intention and insight, which instantly puts the work beyond the reach of any computer. They are also bursting with a humanity (and understanding thereof) which even the most advanced computer could never hope to replicate. So, while judging Shakespeare on the level of ‘do I like it or not? Does it bring me pleasure?’ may answer the question of individual taste, it doesn’t begin to answer the question of whether Shakespeare is art as it doesn’t appreciate that which separates it from random scribbling.

Even with intertextuality, post-structuralism, Duchamp’s ‘Fountain’ or Adorno’s negation of aestheticism itself, we rely on these contexts and histories created by humans, even if to react against them (and in doing so, expand and progress the form). All of these things have become part of critical theory and part of our interpretation of art (however much some of the individuals behind them may have despised this development). The same could be said of Punk rock – it reacted against the dominant ideas of popular music at the time and created something new, yet for all of its radicalism it is now seen as influential as the context it kicked against.

Popular music certainly has its own history, its own context. The major difference with the more ‘traditional’ art forms is perhaps that it’s a fairly brief one, with mass-produced recorded music only arising and dominating in the 20th century. The notions of authorship and artistry which we appeal to when speaking about pop music tend to be those which, varyingly depending on your tastes, only hark back as far as Motown and/or The Beatles. The former is held up as the banner for ‘it’s not important who write the songs’ and ‘the star is key’; the latter are obviously archetypes of creative self-determination in pop. In their way, the Sex Pistols were an important crossroads as the perfect blend between the two, having their own Berry Gordy in Malcolm McLaren and playing ‘characters’, yet writing their own songs and playing instruments (albeit in a self-consciously rudimentary fashion.)

Yet the tensions between the two concepts of pop have never really abated; many still pick their side, mocking ‘manufactured music’ or ridiculing ‘authenticity’. What is lost here are the deeper commonalities : both undoubtedly treated pop music as an art form, and there is far more going on in the best of both ‘worlds’ than ‘does the listener find this catchy?

Ironically, it was another meeting of these ‘worlds’ which perhaps ushered in an era where this was obscured: Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’, while undoubtedly a brilliant piece of work, was the ‘Jaws’ of the music industry, ushering in the era of the blockbuster. Many of the arguments we hear today – justification by appealing to record sales/popularity, the dominance of love for an artist’s persona over their work, the fetishism of an artist who retreats from their work and becomes the product themselves – can arguably be traced back to this massive breakpoint. Its aftermath certainly calcified attitudes of ‘manufactured vs authenticity’, which is perhaps surprising as most of the pop artists which came after were certainly self-determining. Yet this was also the period where the star, the character, became a visual product and commerce really became an unavoidable part of pop. This spectacle was so removed from what had come before that it paradoxically calcified the tribe mentality.

We’ll probably never stop asking what art is. What’s remarkable about pop music today is that so few seem to care. As The Guardian blog illustrates, it’s a conversation which never dies with certain forms. I suppose Instragram is its own ‘I like it vs how it was made’ argument…but that’s another story.

Evolutionary music doesn’t mean the death of the creator

Punk, Lennon and 2012

I’ve been watching the BBC’s brilliant ‘Punk Britannia‘ series for the past few weeks. I always tend to love such potted histories of genres, especially when they attempt to link the musical trends to wider socio-political issues. Of course this is particularly easy with punk, yet the eagerness to draw comparisons between the late 1970s and the present day has at times been rather clunky. A country on the verge of economic collapse, workers on strike, a ‘nation coming together’ to celebrate a royal jubilee – you get the idea. Nonetheless, it’s been striking to watch the artists of the period being interviewed. They speak of reacting against not only the politics of the period but also the culture. A picture is painted of a smothering, pervasive banality; a mass of artists with nothing to say and no interest in saying anything anyway. Glam rock, once a subversive pleasure with sinister undercurrents, had already descended into a neutered pantomime of self-parody. David Bowie had notably left glam behind with the dystopian hell of ‘Diamond Dogs’, moving swiftly onto the ‘plastic soul’ of ‘Young Americans’.  T Rex were already in terminal decline, while Roxy Music were on hiatus and would return with ‘Manifesto’, a move towards accessible stadium acceptability. Even to look at a list of the biggest hits of the period is to wade through treacle – a mass of saccharine rubbish which would soon be forgotten alongside brilliant pop so removed from any societal context that it could feasibly be released tomorrow.

In this context, then, ‘God Save the Queen’ truly was radical. It’s easily forgotten (or in the case of us who weren’t yet born, not understood in the first place) now that time and distance has led to it becoming a ‘classic’ (that worst of capitalist detournements) but the storm which surrounded the Sex Pistols and this, only their second single, was something which felt truly dangerous. Indeed, it’s widely accepted now that the charts were fixed in order to prevent the song from reaching number one and even its title was blanked out on some chart run downs.  It is no small irony that, 35 years later, the song was the only note of radicalism and dissent in a top 100 filled with songs about absolutely nothing.

Yesterday I also watched ‘The U.S. vs John Lennon’. There can be little doubt that in 1977 Lennon was one of the patriarchs of pop music which punk railed against yet, once again, his activities look unimaginable today. One of the biggest stars in the world not only associating with but also funding radical groups like the Black Panthers and campaigning for the release of the head of the White Panthers? Using his position to campaign against war and speak eloquently about capitalism and class (not least in ‘Working Class Hero’, included on his first post-Beatles album)? The documentary is hagiographic and certainly overstates its case but the fact remains that it’s simply impossible to imagine a 2012 equivalent of this. It’s certainly impossible to imagine John Lennon being so revered in 2012 if he was still around and still being outspoken – as with ‘God Save the Queen’, time and distance allows an easily-digestible version of Lennon to be adored.

We need only look at today’s politically and socially engaged artists and the reactions to them to see this. They don’t tend to be engaged in radicalism as Lennon was, yet even their involvement in mainstream politics is viewed with ridicule and contempt. We try and tear them apart, looking for evidence that they are hypocrites, that they aren’t living perfect lives – indeed, whenever anyone criticises John Lennon’s politics these days, it’s almost inevitably to make the trite observation that he couldn’t be a radical as he was wealthy (‘Imagine no possessions’!). I wrote earlier in the year about this exact response to Plan B for deigning to have an opinion. I have absolutely no doubt that if any of today’s stars became involved with radical politics, they would be absolutely crucified. In our post neo-liberal world the only ‘opinions’ we tolerate are those which enforce consensus politics. Thus artists will be praised for expressing utterly tedious support for gay marriage or supporting Children in Need; if they go beyond this, however, and start speaking about power and economic structures which lie behind these issues, they quickly run into opposition.

More than this – the anti-‘authenticity’ brigade would be out in force. Statements about the banality of mainstream culture such as those made by artists in ‘Punk Britannia’ would be pounced upon as ‘snobbish’, ‘superior’ and ‘sneering’. The funny thing is, they’re meant to be sneering, even superior. They aspired to something more. There was undoubtedly a streak of nihilism running through punk, yet as a movement it ultimately railed against apathy and detachment. They believed that people could shape their own destiny and that, together, people could change things. As one interviewee succinctly put it, “It’s not ‘negative’ to think about politics and the way our lives are run”. No, it’s actually hugely positive, borne out of a deep respect for people and their potential. We are capable of so much more than banality.

Yet in 2012 we undoubtedly live in an age where banality and mediocrity is encouraged. As I’ve noted, we jump on anyone who goes against the grain and our individualistic entitlement encourages a race to the bottom where any respect for popular music as an art form, capable of effecting real debate and even change, is discouraged. That horrendous Gary Barlow and Cheryl Cole debate was more representative of our time than anyone involved could ever have possibly imagined.