Monday, May 28, 2012

Chapter 12: THE SHOCK OF THE OLD: Past, Present and Future in the First Decade of the 21st Century

modernism, violent severance, jettisoned stages, telelogy

Mark  Fisher, of K-Punk: "What Pop lacks now is the capacity for nihilation, for producing new potentials through the negation of what already exists.”

That's in a January 2006 post titled "Is Pop Dead?" , that -  along with excoriating Arctic Monkeys (I took issue with him at the time, said that was the Achilles Heel of the argument, although now, while still liking that first record, I'd have to concede that he was right in principle, which is what matters) -- rejects the poptimist / generalist view of music (which is also the iPod / Spotify view of music)  “as an archipelago of neighbouring but unconflicting options” . Instead Mark envisions pop as “as a spiral of nihilating vortices.”

That bit I totally concurred with: it is the dialectic (punk to postpunk to New Pop to etc) (or techno to  rave to jungle (also  gabba, also trance) to  UK garage to grime to dubstep etc) that advances music, propels it forward. 

Or as I wrote in my blog at the time:  

"not so much war on pop, as pop-as-war, riven by factionalisms and schisms: Northern Soulies hating progressives, postpunk versus Oi!, new pop versus rock, Goth versus new pop, Dexys versus everybody, etc. Every strong passion accompanied with an equally strong antipathy. This adore/abhor reflex relates to that old argument about the either/or mechanism as intensifier, versus the dis-intensifying logic of plus/and…. The latter seemingly proved by all the recent articles about how downloading creates apathy, that ennui of abundance syndrome… I’m not sure if the polar thing's gone away completely: I seem to remember reading a few years about how in the UK the bashment/grime hated nu-metallers and vice versa. But far more common, encouraged by iPod/downloading, is a sort of mild omnivorousness (Burchill's "rock's rich tapestry", except it extends way beyond rock now), liking a little bit of this and that, with the fan losing its fanaticism and becoming more like the generalist critic who doles out praise evenhandedly across a broad spectrum, emotional investments distributed judiciously across a portfolio of pleasures."

Yet is important to stress the bit about "every strong passion" as the other side of the antipahty. Every negation is just the inverse of an affirmation.  Rockism primarily is positive and productive--it's a set of values, articles of faith even, which are in turns spurs to thought, feeling, action, partisanship, etc. Anti-rockism, in contrast, seems to imagine that it is somehow possible to achieve a non-ideological, "all gates open" relationship with a whole wide world of sound; a total translucence of self in which all biases, predispositions, inclinations, etc are dissolved. But even if this were possible, why would this be good? Isn't all criticism (and, at the non-verbalised level, all passion too) coming from a position? From a self that is both social and embodied. Isn't criticism by its nature always engaged, visceral, partisan, its "for" usually containing an implicit "against"? Judgement likewise is always on the basis of some kind of principles--aesthetic, political, ethical, etc etc. Anti-rockism, pursuing its negations to the limit, would open up a vast universe of un-principled prattle.

Actually it's worth than prattle: it's an entropy-ocean of  Derek Smalls-y writing, that lives in the middle region between mild enthusiasm and restrained snark, that acts like it is smarter than its subject matter...  it  never RAVES, it never RAGES.

Jaron Lanier

Who writes about how netculture is "fixated on the world as it was before the web was born"
It is dependent on old media, and the old output of the old media: “It is astonishing how much of the chatter online is driven by fan responses to expression that was originally created within the sphere of old media and that is now being destroyed by the net. Comments about TV shows, major movies, commercial music releases, and video games must be responsible for almost as much bit traffic as porn. There is certainly nothing wrong with that, but since the web is killing the old media, we face a situation in which culture is effectively eating its own seed stock."

C.f.  what I call paraculture --  something that runs along side the mainstream.  a side-stream so very closely entwined with the mainstream as to be inseparable from it, yet not able to affect it to any great degree.... very close, yet beside the point. the prefix ‘para’, as well as suggesting "beside", also contains an insinuation of parasitism -- this stream depends on the creative industries for an endless supply of new material to comment on, recombine, parody, gossip about.  (para, or paro? an entire microculture of Weird Al Yankovichs?)

Black Eyed Peas and kitsch-futurism

In the video for "Imma Be",  leader says that a new technology for the synthetising of the group's vocal parts without their involvement will take "the Peas into 3008...  this is the future right there."

Grime and dubstep as contained explosions

I underestimated dubstep here – that was written in the summer of 2010 and by the time the book came out, events had overtaken! If anything is the opposite of contained, it’s dubstep right now, POP!ping up as the track-chassis for  rappers Jay-Z & Kanye West, R&B singer Chris Brown and even teenybop heartthrob Justin Bieber, or featuring as breakdowns in tracks from Flo Rida’s “Good Feeling” to tunes on the new Ke$ha album.

As argued elsewhere the wobble > brostep > Skrillex > Bieberr & bass evolution is one of the few examples of linearity and extensional-intensional escalation in recent music, while also fitting the classic narrative of underground sound > breakthrough > overground ubiquity > exhaustion.

Dance music and rehashes of the 90s and even 80s / from full-tilt FWD>> thrust to the lateral and recursive logic of hyperstatic dance

I was totally caught up in the Nineties rave culture and I can testify that there was a sensation of teleology, a palpable feeling that something was unfolding through the music,. It would be easy to say in hindsight that this was an illusion but I'd rather honor the truth of how it felt at the time. On a month by month basis, you witnessed the music changing and there seemed to be a logic to its mutation and intensification.  From hardcore to darkcore to jungle to drum'n'bass to techstep, across the 1991 to 1996 timespan, it felt like there was a destination, even a destiny, for the music's relentless propulsion.  I entered the scene in late '91, when the "journey" was already well underway, so you could say that the trajectory started as far back as 1988, when acid house impacted the UK.

Mine is a London-centric viewpoint, but similar trajectories were unfolding in Europe, with the emergence of gabber, and trance, or the evolution of minimal techno's evolution. There was a linear and extensional development, along an axis of intensification. Each stage of the music superceded the preceding one, like the stages of a rocket being jettisoned as it escapes the Earth's atmosphere. And  there was a forgetfulness, a lack of concern with the immediate past, because our ears were always trained on the future.

One of the main reasons a sense of linear progress was physically felt during the Nineties was that between 1990 and 1997, techno got faster: there was an exponential rise in beats-per-minute, that accompanied all the other ways in which the music got harder, more rhythmically dense, and so forth.

At a certain point the London-centric hardcore/jungle narrative took a swerve, slowing down in tempo and embracing house music's sensuality, first with speed garage and then with the even slower and sexier 2step. But that just seemed like a canny move to avoid an approaching dead end (one that drum'n'bass would bash its collective head against for...  ever since really!) The rhythmic complexification that had developed through drum'n'bass carried on with speed garage and 2step, just in a less punitive way.
In the Noughties, especially in the last five years, the feeling you get from dance culture and the changes within it is quite different -- whatever the opposite of teleology is, that's what you got! It is hard to identify centers of energy that one could definitively pinpoint as the vanguard. 

The closest thing in recent years might well be the populist "wobble" sector within dubstep, if only because there's a kind of escalation of wobble-ness going on there. There is a full-on, hardcore, take-it-to-extremes spirit to wobblestep. Ironically, the dubstep connoisseurs and scene guardians can't stand wobble and have veered off into disparate welter of  "musical" directions.  Wobble is quite a masculinist sound, reminding me of gabber.  But then it is easy to forget that the Nineties was often about this kind of punishing pursuit of extremes: the beats and the bass were a test to the listener, something you endured as much as enjoyed (or had to take drugs in order to withstand). The evolution of the music was measurable in a experiential, bodily way. Beats got tougher and more convoluted, textures got more scalding to the ear, atmospheres and mood got darker and more paranoid.

Apart from grime and aspects of dubstep, Noughties post-techno music overall seems to have retreated into "musicality" (in the conventional sense of the word) and pleasantness. So instead of that militant-modernist sense of moving forward into the future, the culture's sense of temporality seems polymorphous and recursive. 

Fredric Jameson’s work, especially  A Singular Modernity, helped me see that rave in general and the UK hardcore continuum in particular had been a kind of enclave of modernism within a pop culture that was gradually succumbing to postmodernism.  Coming out of street beats culture, without hardly any input from art schools and only the most vague, watered-down notion of musical progress, it nonetheless constituted a kind of self-generated flashback to the modernist adventure of the early 20th Century.  The hardcore continuum especially propelled itself forward thanks to an internal temporal scheme of continual rupturing: it kept breaking with itself, jettisoning earlier superceded stages.  One small aside in A Singular Modernity struck me as both true and funny, when Jameson talks about the modernists being obsessed with measurement, "how do you determine what is really new?". That struck me as the characteristic mindset of those who came up through the Nineties as critics. But the new generation of electronic music writers (and probably musicians too) don't seem to respond to music in this way.  It's no longer about the lust for the unprecedented, about linear evolution and the rush into the unknown. It's about tracking these endless involutionary pathways through the terra cognita of dance music history, the tinkering with inherited forms.

Electronic music: the future; role of technology

FACT's Kiran Sande and Gavin Russom of Black Meteroic Star /Black Leotard Front/  DFA/ etc in dialogue:

KS: "There’s an undeniable sense that electronic dance music is no longer plausibly ‘futurist’ – the idea that every successive techno or house record is a giant leap forward for sound/music is no longer a credible one, if it ever was. Genuinely new sounds seem increasingly hard to come by. It seems that more and more, the most interesting records in the electronic music realm are those that enter into conceptual dialogue with dance music past. I think not just of Russom and Giffoni but, say, Atom TM’s Liedgut LP; the most adventurous artists around right now seem to be consciously and formally invoking the past. 

GR: "Is this just a function of the fact that there is so much more dance music being produced and released then there was at the time when, as you say, each new record was a giant leap forward? Undoubtedly a lot of the newer technology that exists for making dance music is focussed more on imitation than it is on invention, but there are still lots of new tools that could be used. For example, I was speaking to Paul Schreiber (of Synthesis Technology/MOTM) the other day and he was describing two new synth modules he’s designed. Both are completely radical and unlike anything out there.  There’s lots of stuff out there but I rarely hear it on records. [But] we have Omar S., Gemmy, Traxx, Levon Vincent… All those guys have put things out that I consider pretty radical recently, that come out of specific genres but then blow the defining characteristics of those genres to pieces.

"I can’t think of a moment where dance music was not in a conceptual dialogue with the past, as all music is – because of the fact that it is continually evolving and changing and growing from where it is to where it is going to be.  The first wave of Detroit techno is obviously in dialogue with the music of the late 70’s, Kraftwerk and OMD etc, also with Motown and late 70s funk and soul, just as those musics were in a conceptual dialogue with rock, blues and jazz before them.  I consider continuing that dialogue to be part of my responsibility as a composer and producer, to participate in the evolution of music as a whole.”

But then Gavin R is a pretty retrolicious dude, really - as I established in this review of an earlier record of his with Delia Gonzalez : "Fabulous stuff, but make no mistake, DFA hip factor notwithstanding, this isn't "the latest thing." It's actually a time-travel trip back to '70s analog synth rock. The sheer expanse of The Days of Mars(four pieces in 50 minutes) recalls the album-side-long canvases daubed by such as Edgar Froese, Klaus Schulze, and Tim Blake. Russom, his beard blending indistinguishably into his long, lank locks, even resembles one of those Kraut-rockers who turned New Agey, like Deuter."

A quite different perspective is offered by Seb at And You May Find Yourself,  a great blog that's gone depressingly quiet this year:

"Technology has been the engine of every major aesthetic shift, every stylistic warp, every timbral weft. The temporal limits of physical formats first dictated, then liberated conventional song structure. Amplification allowed small ensembles of amateur musicians to become icons. Voltage-controlled oscillators and tape-based effects modules produced physically-impossible sounds. Turntables and samplers turned compositions into instruments, folding music Moebius-style back upon itself. Without barely an exception, any time a new noise has been born, it's been midwifed by machine.

But stop to consider the most recent technological developments: have any of them been appropriate to producing sound, or merely reproducing it? The last great leap forward in music production was non-destructive and non-linear editing, and the shine was already off by the 2001 release of N*Sync's "Pop" single. Most new tools for composers & producers are meant only to emulate older analog equipment minus any of their mechanical failings (or character, for that matter) and with greater ease of use. It seems sadly appropriate to me that the best-selling effects units are looping pedals: contemporary musicians seem more than happy to shackle themselves to endless, high-resolution reiterations of the same.

"Meanwhile, the technology with the single greatest impact upon music as an art-form, the internet, offers no new means of crafting sound, no new compositional methods. Its sole capabilities are storage and transmission - not unlike handing a megaphone to everyone inside the world's biggest library.

The Sixties

You wouldn't think there was much nourishment left to pick off the ravaged carcass of Sixties rock, portions of which were getting reheated as far back as the early Eighties.  But still they come: neo-psychedelic bands in the indie world, and in the mainstream, groups like the one whose CD arrived in the mail today: Grace Potter and the Nocturnals.  The press release describes the group as "a modern-day version of Tina Turner stroking the microphone in a spangled mini-dress while fronting the Rolling Stones" and alludes to the group's formation in terms of a shared love of The Last Waltz and that whole Laurel Canyon/Woodstock (the place not the festival) milieu inhabited by The Band, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, and Dylan.  The group themselves talk about the genesis of one song in terms of "listening to the Kinks nonstop" and describe an earlier album as their "Neil Young Harvest/J.J. Cale moment". The combination of rock scholarliness and bleedin' obviousness is nauseating. But would it be better if the reference points were less canonical?  Not really: in essence, there's no difference between how Grace Potter and the Nocturnals arrived at their sound and the way critically-acclaimed indie rock bands assemble an identity, it's just that the latter use more esoteric, less worn-out influences. 

Talking about shock of the old -- shudder, Alabama Shakes


This Was Tomorrow


"Neophilia turns to necrophilia" / theories of the life and death, growth and decline, of genres and musical forms

In 2006, the musician and writer Momus went so far as to suggest that "the medium of pop music has died...  exhausted by attempts to match its former glories, yet unable to turn the page and reinvent itself." Momus and myself are roughly the same age and it's well-known that as you get older, it gets harder to perceive newness in music: you've accumulated too much knowledge, you can see the precedents  for everything.  Frothing-with-enthusiasm youngsters do not hesitate to accuse old curmudgeons of having a perspective warped by having experienced too much. Still, I do come across a fair number of  young curmudgeons, which suggests that there is an emerging consensus cutting across generational lines that  believes that pop has stalled in its tracks.

It is also true that historically, there have been examples of artistic forms that have enjoyed a golden age and then gone into recession: an autumnal and epigonic phase of inferior work that is imitative and recreative of the earlier more dynamic and daring period of fertility.  
Sometimes entire cultures, civilisations, will go into a state of  stagnation and decline, burdened by a sense of belatedness, or addled by complacency and self-indulgence. 

Phil Knight uses a concept from Spengler  to describe this  process:  the descent into patternwork. “An archetypal example of this is the Persian carpet, whose complex interwoven motifs were originally intensely meaningful expressions of sacred geometry...  but are now churned out merely as decoration by people who have no idea what the designs signify, and if they do, view it as merely anecdotal. What once was high art becomes a kind of autistic self-replicating craft. Much of what we now consider to be ethnic styles of pottery, textiles etc. are simply the endless reproductions of art forms whose meaning has long since withered away....”

In reference to rock, he wonders if the “the lubricant for the passage from art to craft” is “irony.”  
In rock terms, the intermediary “ironic” phase, which is also a semi-parodic phase, would be maybe Butthole Surfers, Urge Overkill, Zodiac Mindwarp, but also Acid Mothers Temple, Boris,  The Darkness, Andrew W.K., etc.. The attitude is “I know rock is silly, outmoded, its premises and underpinnings are untenable, it’s obnoxious, or even destructive... ludicrous in its self-importance... But I still want to rock, so I'll do it with a raised eyebrow and a knowing wink.” 

This isn’t quite pattern work yet, but it’s the transitional phase.  As Phil writes “It's when the replications start to be produced by people who don't get the in-joke, and this will surely happen, that the true inauguration of the long, long era of patternwork begins.

Here's a Plonger riff from Phil Knight about patternwork with reference to the 20th Century Western culture but with particular reference to the failings of British rock and British art in the 1990s   It starts with a bloody big quote from Spengler, viz:

"And the bitter conclusion is that it is all irretrievably over with the arts of form of the West. The crisis of the nineteenth century was the death-struggle. Like the Apollinian, the Egyptian and every other, the Faustian art dies of senility, having actualised its inward possibilities and fulfilled its mission within the course of its Culture.

What is practised as art today - be it music after Wagner or painting after Manet, Cézanne, Leibl and Menzel - is impotence and falsehood. One thing is quite certain, that today every single art-school could be shut down without art being affected in the slightest. We can learn all we wish to know about the art-clamour which a megalopolis sets up in order to forget that its art is dead from the Alexandria of the year 200. There, as here in our world-cities, we find the pursuit of illusions of artistic progress, of personal peculiarity, of "the new style", of "unsuspected possibilites", theoretical babble, pretentious fashionable artists, weight-lifters with cardboard dumb-bells - the "Literary Man" in the Poet’s place, the unabashed farce of Expressionism, which the art-trade has organised as a "phase of art history", thinking and feeling and forming as industrial art. Alexandria, too, had problem-dramatists and box-office artists whom it preferred to Sophocles, and painters who invented new tendencies and successfully bluffed their public. The final result is that endless industrious repetition of a stock of fixed forms which we see today in Indian, Chinese and Arabian-Persian art. Pictures and fabrics, verses and vessels, furniture, dramas and musical compositions - all is pattern work. We cease to be able to date anything within centuries, let alone decades, by the language of its ornamentation.

So it has been in the Last Act of all Cultures."  (
from  "The Decline Of The West")
But going back to music...

Truth is, genres generally are finite, in the sense of having a range of resources that they burn through and exhaust.  (Check out this piece that uses the analogy of 'peak oil'  to argue that rock's innovation levels are necessarily deep into the tapering off phase:  "Assuming some constraints on the definition of the form, the amount of innovation that can be done within that form is finite. Most of it will come early and fast, then decline after the peak.")

Then you get a heritage version of the genre: musicians and custodians who resemble conservationists husbanding a nature preserve, protecting vulnerable species that would otherwise go extinct. Underground rap is one example of this syndrome. So is the neo-classical school in jazz. Unlike undie rap, it has institutional support that keeps the legacy on life support, as with Lincoln Center's subsidizing of Wynton Marsalis's orchestra.

Legendary jazz critic Gary Giddins came up with a four-phase schema for the life cycles of musical genres.  In his impishly titled essay "How Come Jazz Isn't Dead?" he outlined a succession of stages. "Native" is the emergent phase, when the music is primarily tied to a community. "Sovereign" is when the music dominates mainstream popular culture. "Recessionary" is when it is ousted from center stage (in jazz's case, by rock'n'roll) but continues to have a strong presence in the culture. It goes through a multitude of artistic developments and mutations as it interacts with other forms of music and even achieves a prestige it never had before when it was popular dance music. "Classical", the final and present stage of jazz, is when "even the most adventurous young musicians are weighed down by the massive accomplishments of the past." Many are "content to parrot the voices of the masters". The genre isn't dead exactly, but has become a "stately, classical art", a "Cultural Treasure".

My own Giddins-style schema would be:

--  emergent /  (raw, naïve, effortlessly and unconsciously innovative) ROCK'N'ROLL

-- mature (selfconsciously innovativ, with ideology of progression etc) ROCK

--  outer extremes (purism/intensification/back to basics reductionism) OR fusion/maximalism (looking outside itself) (this is still a modernist phase, but starting to unravel, decay, undermine itself)   PROG/PUNK/POSTPUNK / POST-ROCK

-- postmodernism/retro/"museal" --- pastiche, revivalism, parody, recombinant, historicism - INDIE / ALTERNATIVE / BRITPOP / HYPNAGOGIC / FREAK FOLK / ZONE OF ALTERATIONS ETC


Kevin J.H. Dettmar's Is Rock Dead? focuses on  rock and the discourse around its vital signs, but the ideas are applicable to rap, electronic dance music, anything really. One problem with this otherwise fascinating book, though, is that Dettmar refuses to countenance the possibility that a music could actually die (in the sense of becoming irrelevant, uncoupled from the Zeitgeist, etc).  It is a historical fact that there are forms of  music that have died and only existed in preserved or curatorial forms -- by resurrection and retrieval efforts -- music hall, ragtime, blues.

Much of the book involves ripostes to critics and academics who have advanced the argument that rock is dying, from Lester Bangs and Richard Meltzer to James Miller and Lawrence Grossberg.  Often Dettmar's angle of critique is to accuse the critic of projecting his own fading life-force onto the music. James Miller's Flowers In the Dustbin, which argues that rock completed its arc with punk and thereafter consisted of  variations on established themes, is dismissed as "transparently a requiem for  [Miller's] own youth". Dettmar lumps Flowers in with the wider phenomenon of babyboomer triumphalism, a sort of "generational ethnocentrism" that produces books with titles like like Hipper Than Our Kids,  When The Music Mattered: Rock in the 60s, and When Rock Was Young.

The prospect of rock's death has been a thread of anxiety running all the way through the music's history--voiced not just by journalists and professors but by fans and musicians too.  The music's very vitality--its energy, currency, newness, sheer command over its era-- unavoidably and inherently raised the possibility of a fading away, and raised that prospect remarkably early too. That fade can be characterized in lots of different ways, depending on the ideology-of-rock held by the critic, why the music mattered in the first place. A common one would be the relapse of rock back into what it defined itself against (showbiz/MOR/mere entertainment). But whatever  the essence is deemed to be,  the insistence on the possibility of a music form's death is a form of fidelity towards its past vitality.  As Dettmar  himself puts it, "the birth and death of rock aren't just coincident… they are, in fact, two different ways to talk about the very same thing."    And elsewhere: "the story of rock'n'roll is, we might say, the story of the death of rock'n'roll; there is, seemingly, no way to tell the one without the other"

Lawrence Grossberg (one of Dettmar's main targets) argues that "if the rock formation had a beginning, it is also possible that it has an end" and suggests that this end may not involve rock's disappearance, but its having been drastically altered by changes in its surrounding context and the uses people derive from the music, that to all intents and purposes rock is no longer itself.  It is an impostor, a betrayal, a zombie.  

In  his 1992 essay "Notes on the Life and Death and Incandescent Banality of Rock'n'Roll", Greil Marcus takes the next logical step of wanting rock to put out of its misery.  Spinning off a discussion of a Poison video (!) as being emblematic of the state of rock as “a pornography of money, fame, and domination, all for no reason outside itself” , Marcus speculates:  It’s as if the source of the depression is not that rock is dead but that it refuses to die. Far more than Elvis, really, a clone like Bret Michaels, so arrogant and proud, is of the walking dead. It’s just that the money’s too good to quit.”  

Marcus detourns a French critic's mordant take on 1950s art ("pointlessness surrounded by repetition.... a dismal yet profitable carnival") to apply it to Nineties rock. 
In the same piece, he also wrote about how the “myth of the Sixties” was felt, by modern youth who’d never lived through the time, “as a an absence, like the itch of a limb amputated before they were born”. Which would explain the Sandy Thom phenom. 

The rush of the 2000s: connectivity, instantaneity

As prophesied  by Jean Baudrilalrd in The Ecstasy of Communication, 1983: "The schizo is bereft of every scene, open to everything in spite of himself, living in the greatest confusion..... What characterizes him is less the loss of the real....  but, very much to the contrary ... the absolute proximity, the total instanteity of things, the feeling of no defense, no retreat.  It is the end of interiority and intimacy, the overexposure and transparence of the world which traverses him without obstacle. He can no longer produce the limits of his own being, can no longer play nor stage himself, can no longer produce himself as mirror. He is now only a pure screen, a switching center for all the networks of influence."
Movement between cultural regions or zones becomes more enjoyed and celebrated than actually being anywhere.  This is having a digital mind, a digital libido. “It seems to me that a lot of younger listeners think the way the iPod thinks," Alex Ross argued in The New Yorker. "They are no longer so invested in a single way of seeing the world".  Which sounds fine, except that this is the ideology of late capitalism, which values ideological flexibility, the ability to invest and divest with supreme suppleness and speed.

The transition from l the Analogue System to the Digital Regime

In music, the digital landscape emerged gradually (its roots go back to the switch to CD but it really took off with the internet, increased bandwidth, and the rise of the MP3) and it has certainly generated new ways of experiencing and discovering music, new networks and quasi-communities.  Yet overall it's hard to avoid the conclusion that digital culture has eroded the intensities that were made possible under the previous analogue system, and replaced them with distraction. Intensity and identification have given way to inconstancy and "partial allegiance".  The album as a cohesive artwork whose internal temporality the listener submitted to in a thoroughly immersive way, has been  displaced by the playlist and the mix. The hit single as public event has become steadily more rare--things like a Lady Gaga video YouTube viewed a billion times or "Empire State of Mind" as a song you actually hear in the street, pumping out into public space, seem like throwbacks.  Music functions much more as a mood-modifier or background sound for the multi-tasking listener.  Similarly, music writing serves as a consumer tip-sheet, rather than oracle and incitement.

A  recap of the defining features of the world brought into being by the transition from analogue to digital:

Atemporality:  thanks to file sharing communities, music blogs, YouTube, etc,  the pop past is as present to us as contemporary pop.  Overall, the past has an unpredecented presence in our present .

Super-Abundance: Music has become, for those prepared to disregard copyright laws, which is most everybody, limitless. The scarcity model of cultural consumption (restrained by finances and storage space) has been shattered forever. 
Dematerialisation: The iPod looks destined to be a transitional technology, a bridge between the past era of collection (the stockpile of purchased and cherished objects) and the future era of selection (music as stream, the SoundCloud, etc).The iPod still had that vestigial appeal to the ataviastic urge to collect and contain,  but it shifted commodity fetishism to the intensely attractive device itself. But soon the idea that music can be an object will be a bizarre archaism.

No delay/ no distance:  The Internet has eliminated both the limits of geography and of time. You can get hold of music from anywhere across the globe (and you might also be getting hold of music made by a band that lives a mile away from you via some Russian file-sharing community). You can get hold of records instantly, as soon as they come out, or often before the album is officially released (thanks to leaks of pre-releases).

Underground/Overground Distinction Dissolves:  Subcultures do not really exist anymore thanks to the super-bright exposure of the web.  The virtual spatiality of the internet creates the illusion that everything is somehow equal, on the same level: the flat plane of webspace. With one mouse-click you're transported from the front page of the New York Times to an obscure  noise label's website.  There remain cultural micro-niches: blogs that are hardly ever visited, podcasts and web radio stations that virtually nobody tunes into. But because of the way the web is structured, these don't feel underground in the same way they did in the age of the print media and the dominance of TV and radio. 
Connectivity versus collectivity: Connectivity means we are all much more  aware of each other’s business (on account of  social networking and online display of taste, etc), yet the possibility of real collective experience through pop seems to be fading, through fragmentation, the replacement of public arenas of mass musical experience like Top of the Pops, Radio One or the weekly music press.

The result is a state of absolute proximity (in which the gaps between things – spatial and temporal, but also generic and demographic have been dissolved, in a sort of real, but sort of unreal way). These are the gaps in which desire is formed, across which desire traverses: the distance between self and other. Without desire, there is just a flooding plenitude of sensation... instant gratification, that only lasts an instant.


Frieze’s Jorg Heiser argued that the kind of eclectic bricolage that characterized postmodernism had crossed a threshold and passed  "beyond the point where it's about a fixed set of cultural genealogies and instead has turned into a kind of computational aggregate of multiple influences and sources."
Ronald Jones worries that superhybrdity is a "post-critical" idea, that it’s abandoned the idea of criticality or critique. But Hito Steyerl says superhybrid artists "demonstrate the loss of faith in what they're attached to, while failing to ultimately overcome it."

Jennifer Allen, in Frieze also argues that "postmodernism may be the first word to become obsolete because it was replaced, not by another word like globalization, but by a technology that did the same job more effectively....    the Internet reduces all content -- cultural and more -- to the degree-zero of the screen.... If Postmodernism aimed for a conciliatory hybridity - where old rivals like high culture and subculture could mix -- the Internet normalizes a super-hybridity that makes such hierarchical divisions irrelevant."

Bourriaud and erasing the distinction between consuming and producing

 Postproduction artists do not differentiate "between their work and that of others".  Bourriaud heralds a "communism of forms" that is emerging, a new ethics (property is theft, genius steals) appropriate to art that is based around reprocessing and  salvage.  

Bourriaud and the defence of eclecticism and bricolage

He rails against the modernist "monomania that considers eclecticism (that is, any attempt to exit this purist narrative) a cardinal sin.  History must make sense. And this sense must be organized in a linear narrative."

Bourriuad and the supercession of supercession

Bourriaud rejects the old adversarial model of art oriented around the "surpassing of past achievements," the anxiety of influence and the obsession with originality.  Instead he counsels that the responsibility of  artists today is "to inventory and select, to use and download.... "

Bourriaud and “positivise the remake”

This impatience with the shibboleth of originality is redolent of Shibuya-kei artists like Cornelius.  

 He also echoes Eno with his anti-Romanticism (declaring the irrelevance of modernism's "heroic quest for the forbidden and the sublime") and his belief that the cultural junkheap can ferment new forms and ideas. Eno himself talked about the accumulation of decaying culture as a "compost heap", funky but fertilizing.

Bourriaud and “pathways through signs”

Postproduction artists are "semionauts" whose art assumes "journey form" or "trajectorial form".  “We surf on a network of signs."

Semionaut, literally sign-sailor, is a play on the “astronaut.” But because he or she is a voyager within the sign-space of culture that is largely composed of archives, the semionaut is of necessity a retronaut, at least partially.  The pathways are cut through the great known, not the great unknown.

Bourriaud and the DJ-as-model

"The remixer has become more important than the instrumentalist".  Remixing is akin to tinkering ("we tinker with production”), which Bourriaud seeks to rescue from its demeaned minor status (as per wikipedia, associated with itinerant menders and utensil-makers, “tinkering is therefore the process of adapting, meddling or adjusting something in the course of making repairs or improvements, a process also known as bricolage.”)

Ken Ishii, formerly a prominent figure in Nineties techno but now largely forgotten, is quoted by Bourriaud to the effect that music is now like the Internet, accessible to all, and thus caught up an uncontainable mutagenic process of breaking down and recombination. Prophesying an endless golden age of "personalized" music, Ishii asserts confidently  "I'm sure that new musics will be born from now on, unceasingly." This simply has not happened.

Bourriaud and the management of expectations / settling for less / no more giant steps

There seems to be a rather too happy acceptance (in Bourriaud and in recreativity thinkers generally) of the idea that in the future there will no more major forms or archetypes. This is something you see across the culture, a logic of reworking existing narratives and legends. The prevalence of vampire movies, with all kind of creative twists on the archetype, or an attempt to renew through additive logic (Being Human has a ghost, a werewolf, a vampire living together as if normal human beings).  Directors like Tarantino and Jarmusch reworking  pulp fictions (blacksploitation, martial arts, etc). And genre hybrids like that movie Cowboys and Aliens.

Meta-money / meta-music analogy

I think there may be something to the idea that peer-to-peer sharing, which creates a kind of "affluence" (musical plenty for the listener) that is completely disconnected from production (the musician's labour, the record company's investment etc)….  I think there may be an analogy there between that "false wealth" and what happened with the credit crisis -- all these prosperity based on financial speculation and the inflation of property value that turned out to be absolutely valueless. I don't know if you can point out a connection though, it's more like a parallel -- and a parable, warning of the dangers of thinking you can get something for nothing.

In New Left Review 59, September-October 2009, Gopal Balakrishnan offers some "SPECULATIONS ON THE STATIONARY STATE": 

"Instead, the latest phase of capitalism got an ersatz form of growth primarily through credit-card consumerism and asset bubbles. [[Definition: An asset bubble is formed when the prices of assets are over-inflated due to excess demand. It usually occurs when investors all flock to a particular asset class, such as real estate or commodities such as oil.]] Jameson’s explanation for contemporary society’s inability to experience and represent the totality of the world system initially attributed it to some immeasurable disproportion between human agency and newly unleashed nuclear and cybernetic productive forces.  But in later accounts, the locus of the problem silently shifted to mapping an opaque, pseudo-dynamic world of financial markets. Initial anticipations of an exhilarating new cultural condition gave way to totalizations of a more closed and derivative situation. Capitalism’s culture became an organized semblance of world-historic dynamism concealing and counteracting a secular deceleration in ‘the real economy’.

.... Rather than leading to any ‘New Economy’ in the productive base, the innovations of this period of capitalism have powered transformations in the Lebenswelt of diversion and sociability, an expansion of discount and luxury shopping, but above all a heroic age of what was until recently called ‘financial technology’. Internet and mobile phones, Walmart and Prada, Black–Scholes and subprime—such are the technological landmarks of the period."

Hauntology as a curatorial aesthetic / Dan Lopatin's foregone career path in library science and archivalism 

Intriguingly, before he had any sense that music would be his full-time vocation, Lopatin studied library science and planned to become a full-time archivist.  He regards it as a "noble profession" but "sad too": an ultimately futile struggle against impermanence and the ravages of time. "As an archivist, you're fighting Nature, so hard, every day.   But I felt that this was a profession I could live with. Because you're actually giving back. You're understanding that your role as a human being is to potentially leave something behind. That's how we evolve and, in a way, the archivist is a microscopic part of evolution."

Ariel Pink

Ariel Pink also sort-of-covers an Ethiopian pop songs from the Eighties.
 His music is a puree of jumbled up eras, reflecting the fact that Ariel, who was born in 1978, belongs to the post-historical generation, shaped by the endless  shuffle-mode of VH1  and classic rock radio, and, more recently, iPod and YouTube. “We have no concept of time,” he says. His generation increasingly has no concept of space either, their curiosity about and hunger for fresh musical stimuli bypassing geographical borders and cultural boundaries.  C.f. Vampire Weekend and Gonjasufi’s retro-exotica, oOne of the most beguiling tracks on Before Today is the fusion-flavored instrumental “Reminiscences”. It is effectively a cover, or perhaps an interpretation, of “Liben Sitarochew”, an  Ethiopian “golden oldie” sung by pop singers Yeshimebet Dubale and Kenede Mengesha. According to Ariel, the most famous song-form in Ethiopoia is tizita, “the song of nostalgia and remembrances”. Hence the title “Reminiscences”.
Although the Ethiopiques series of compilations of Sixties and Seventies Ethiopian/Eritrean rhythm-and-blues and funk has been a long-time favourite with hipsters and critics, Ariel’s particular passion is for the underground pop  made during the Derg dictatorship of the 1980s.  He explains that Los Angeles is, “the perfect hub” for this stuff because it has “a little Ethiopia.  Go to the Mercato area and you can buy the cassette tapes that were dubbed by the musicians themselves during the time records were illegalized in Ethiopia.”  Many of these musicians are the same ones you can hear on Ethiopiques, “but by the Eighties they’d become recording artists rather than a live thing. They were forced to do these recordings in the middle of the night, and they’d dub the tapes and disseminate them. By the Eighties and into the early Nineties it’s become this futuristic kind of funk, spacy and totally evocative, with really jazzed out, echoed-out trumpets and Simmons electronic drums.  It’s the most glorious era of music that hasn’t even had its own blog yet. Although there is a lot of stuff on YouTube, because these singers did videos that would get shown on ETV, which was almost like a public access show.”  
 You can also find these “oldies” on Diretube, the Ethiopian equivalent to YouTube.
Ariel first encountered Derg-era Ethio-pop through the cosmopolitan mix of Los Angeles rather than online. But the way it has crept into his palette of influences to nestle alongside Sixties psych, Seventies soft-rock, and Eighties New Wave, parallels the way that the post-Internet generation are growing up in a world-of-sound as post-geographical as it is post-historical.  

Another thing he's into is Soviet New Wave, the preferred listening of an Eighties Russian youth subculture called Stilyagi


What will sustain future forms of revivalism?

Or equally, what in the current cultural landscape is going to provide the material and Proustian memory-triggers for the hauntologists of the future?  It may well be that the digital precludes a hauntological effect altogether (Svetlana Boym wonders if anyone will ever feel nostalgia for a web page.). Still AutoTune pop is a candidate for future-hauntology status. Then again  hauntology generally seems to involve things that were more in the background, stuff that isn't consciously noticed at the time but makes up the fabric of daily cultural life.

The spatialisation of time
The musical past has become spatialized: sounds from all the different eras of history are equally available to us, and, furthermore, they are just as available as the music of the present. In one sense the past is totally present, all of it, in a way that it’s never been before. But if you’ve grown up, as anyone under the age of 30 really has, with a relationship to music based around total access, superabundance, and the erosion of any sense of sounds having placement within a historical or temporal scheme, then thinking about music in terms of causal links and development through time is going to become ever more alien to your consciousness. Younger people, I suspect, just don’t have that feeling that one thing leads to another. The idea that jungle led to UK garage, or 2step led to grime (so crucial to someone like me who actually lived through these transformations, thrilled to them and puzzled over them in real-time), becomes both irrecoverable and simply irrelevant irrelevant to their practice as deejays or producers or consumers. Leaps across the genrescape, through affinity of sound, seem more persuasive, even if there’s no actual historical connection there. Concepts like a group being "ahead of their time" or genres being more or less advanced than others,  seem to make no sense when the entirety of music history is spread out like an atemporal smorgasbord.

More disconcerting than this retroactive disintegration of linearity that imposes itself on history, is the loss of a sense that the future will be more advanced (culturally) than the present. There feels less and less reason to believe the future in the strictly temporal sense (ie. 2016, or 2079) is going to be "further along" an axis of measurement in cultural time.


A common approach by artists of the glutted/clotted era is to avoid having one primary influence by having lots of them. This neatly bypasses the whole psycho-dynamic of the anxiety of influence, but it means that the great psychological pressure to birth oneself as an original is also muted.  Sometimes artists pull together so many disparate elements that they kindle a genuinely unheard-of compound into existence. But too often it just means that the artist in question is diversely derivative.

It could be that hyperstasis is the logical outcome of all genres, a sort of latent stage in its trajectory from messy birth through fertile prime to the end-game of being a heritage institution..  At a certain point, a genre--or an entire formation of music like rock or jazz--accumulates sufficient history behind itself that new musicians are tempted to go back.  It is easier to do that than to innovate.  Some will install themselves in a particular period style. Others will take the recombinant route, patching together hybrids out of what's already been done.  These composites can be intricate and impressive: Elvis Costello, musically, was all about recombinant work within the Sixties and Seventies rock and pop traditions (he also did exercises in period pastiche, like the Motown/Stax oriented Get Happy! or the country covers album Almost Blue). Lyrically and persona-wise, he was  more innovative, while still drawing on aspects of Dylan, Buddy Holly, John Lennon, etc. His very name, compounded of two stars (Elvis Presley and Lou Costello) reveals his method. 

Saying that it is "easier" for musicians to take the recombinant path sounds like an accusation of laziness.  It obviously takes craft and effort to make these hybrids work.  Working with past styles can be preferable for other reasons too.  Genres often reach the point where the only way(s) forward involve the music becoming increasingly difficult and unpleasant, to the point where the cutting edge is actively mutilating and wrecking whatever was appealing about the music in the first place.

In response, you get a "neoclassical" approach.  Wynton Marsalis and his critic ally Stanley Crouch represent this stance within jazz. They reject free jazz, European improvisation, and so forth, as overly intellectualized and academic, deficient in what they regard as jazz's fundamentals of swing and blues feel, etc.  But they also retroactively reject the approach of Seventies jazz-rock and fusion, i.e. taking in influences from outside the tradition, because that damaged what they value in jazz in other ways (amplification and use of effects on the instruments, "trendy" funk and disco rhythms, exotic world influences, snazzy Seventies threads instead of Fifties-style sharp suits).  There's whole schools of people in rock and dance and hip hop who have a Marsalis/Crouch-like perspective.

Ironically,  the more fertile and dynamic a genre is, the more it is setting itself up for the onset of hyperstasis: it is burning through stages of development that could have been stretched out for longer, and it is laying down an immense stockpile of ideas that then exert a kind of gravitational pull on later waves of artists.  That is why dance music in the 2000s got stuck on what I call "the recombinant plateau."

Hyperstasis: escape routes?

What could jolt a musical formation out of hyperstasis?   A technological breakthrough, maybe, especially if in combination with a new drug (the precedent here would be the synergy of Ecstasy and the machines that made house and techno). Or perhaps some kind of social rupture.

The future rush

Perhaps the very idea of "tomorrow's music today" is one of those Wittgensteinian wrinkles in language, a nonsense produced by the peculiarities of tenses and grammar.  If it's made today, or even conceivable today, then by definition it's no longer of the future, it's already here.  In music journalism, one of the standard-issue ways of praising something (usually old music, a reissue or something that deserves to be reissued) is to say it was "ahead of its time," that a certain record "looks ahead to" or "anticipates" something much later,  that with a particular song Band X "invents" the much-later Band Z.   No actually-existent music can really be ahead of its time but it is possible for popular taste--the general public, or a particular, willfully backward-looking sector of it, like indie-rock--to be behind its own time.

Fredric Jameson burbles about the" libidinal charge…. a unique kind of intellectual excitement" stirred by something modern. Affirming its modernity creates an "…. electrical charge… a feeling of intensity and energy … greatly in excess of the attention we generally bring to interesting events or monuments of the past."

I remember
That's my role, you see: the Ghost of Future(ism) Passed. This baleful specter who won't be silenced!

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