Friday, July 30, 2004

At the risk of triggering more bizarrely rancorous blasts,  a few further thoughts.

---"Entrepreneurs"

This is where  I’m supposed to go "Touche," right? Except (and Lord knows I’ve written about this many times before, in relation to jungle, dancehall, and so forth) the crucial distinction is between microcapitalist versus macrocapitalist.* Given that the market is all we have as reality is currently constituted; the market, therefore, is where struggles are played out. Everybody needs to make some bread; everyone dreams of making their art pay. (I'm an entrepeneur too, a small business hawking wares on the ideas market). But surely it's obvious there's a difference between someone hustling white labels direct to record stores and entertainment mega-conglomerates with shareholders and bottom-line considerations.  There’s all kinds of reasons, practical and sentimental, to root for the little DIY guy. Between those extremes there's many levels and gradations.
You have more established and business-like but still fundamentally aesthetics-driven labels like Locked On or Warp or Kompact or _____ , and again I would argue there is a significant difference in motivation and mode of operation to a mega-conglom like Sony. Surely I don't have to point out how, through the entire history of popular music, most if not all of the "revolutionary" phases have been driven by independents and the pressure they’ve exerted on the majors (Sun Records being an absolute classic example), or through the work they’ve unintentionally done for them (discovering new talent, new styles). One might also note the role of
aesthetics-driven medium-size labels (I would count Island, Virgin, Elektra, as originally fitting this mold, independent-spirited even if they went through major distribution, although eventually they got so big they became more or less majors). The accusation levelled at labels like these, or later Rough Trade, as being mere "hip capitalism" or "hippie capitalism" always struck me as facile, given that capitalism is the venue, forum, infrastructure, government reality, through which all these battles or aesthetic partisanships are played out. In other words, it's not the selling, it's the what's being sold that is the important consideration.

(The facts that major labels sometimes release great records, that some idealistic and aesthetics-driven people work within the corporations, that in hip hop some crews have pushed their way in and turned from underdogs to overlords, that microcapitalist scenes (e.g. Jamaica in the 70s) often have shadier ethics and treat their artists worse than the macro congloms, and that many microcapitalists would probably like to become macrocapitalists--doesn't change my basic point here.)

--- market forces
The reference to market forces wasn't to posit some outside zone of purity beyond the market, but really to make an analogy between people who believe in markets (let them be free and everything will sort itself out and all will be hunky dory) and those who believe in the chart as anything more than (at very best) neutral device for tabulating what's selling. Of course the market isn't a level playing field, and as K-Punk points out, neither is the chart. The first thing conglomerates do if they can is restrict the free play of the market and get as close to monopoly as they can without the US Government Trust-busters checking them. At various points in pop history, the market has been thrown into sufficient turmoil (again I'd point to the pressure exerted by independents) that something like Kogan's "context of abundance" has existed--the Sixties, postpunk/New Pop, rave, hip hop at various points. But the majors have no real interest in hosting a context of abundance (it's too volatile, the profit margins are too slim, you don't get the economies of scale). The majors would rather have blockbusters than maintain a whole load of mid-list (publishing term) artists selling cult levels of sales (that wasn't always the case: Seventies with Harvest and Roy Harper, etc).

The same logic affects media: market forces led to the travesty of an MTV where the music content almost entirely disappeared at one point; it’s led to Clear Channel. Radio in this country takes segmentation and redundancy to the ultimate degree and then as Douglas Wolk has pointed out slaps ten tons of compression on the signal because everyone wants their record to leap out of the speakers and be competitive. Radio programming and the sheer muscle needed to make a hit in a country so vast are the reasons why Chartism of the kind espoused by Morley has almost never been a viable stance here. (Reprinted in Ask, there’s a piece he did on Meatloaf for NME where he leaves the UK all buzzed up on New Pop and then arriving gets his spirit crushed by the "rolling rocks" of Foreigner, Styx, etc). In terms of pop media, my utopia wouldn't be based around the official chart but the  "mixed economy" of London's radioscape:  the state-run stations with their vestigial Reith-ian commitments to the non-commercial,  the commercial pop stations and Kiss FM,  the eccentricty of  Resonance, and the polyglot babble of community ethnic stations, and not least, the pirates with their amateur ethos and hacking into the public airwaves.(Worth noting how often the golden ages of pop and rock in the past have all been bound up with radio--pirate radio in the Sixties, FM radio in America in the late 60s and early 70s, and so forth). 

---no resources of its own.
Pop, we appear to have agreed, has no aesthetic essence; it’s not a style of music. What is it then? It’s a space and a process: synthesis. Sometimes the synthetic process creates splendid results.  "The pop tradition" if such a thing exists is essentially a tradition of borrowing things from other traditions and combining them: folk forms, high culture, the avant-garde, exotica, showbiz (the styles of which if you trace them back far enough turn out to be their own combinations of folk forms and kitschified high culture element). Pop’s alchemical X factor is technology, the crucible of the studio. (The auteur synthesists are almost always the ones who’re most adroit at working the latest tech--Trevor Horn, Timbaland). If you looked at, say, the Beatles and broke down their syntheses, you’d get rhythm & blues, music hall, George Martin’s classical-derived arrangement skills, bastardised (not an insult in my book) raga, Stockhausen, etc, etc… Pop’s alchemy, its magic, is to seal the joins so we don’t see them; it’s just pop, seemingly ex nihilo, glittering on your TV screen or  dazzling through the radio.

Eventually pop had been going long enough and accumulated enough matter that it could refer back to itself--its own back pages became a resource (glam, perhaps, that turning point of self-reflexivity). The already-refined and synthesized material could be super-refined and re-synthesized, either combined with earlier alloys, or blended with new materials from "outside". To really keep moving forward and surprising us, though, pop has to draw repeatedly on those external resources; it requires a steady input of raw materials.

Now certainly there are instances, numerous ones, where the raw materials are actually improved through this refinement and synthesis process. One’s perspective will vary on this case by case. Generally speaking the less you’re invested in a "raw" genre, the more likely you’ll be to favor its pop-ification. For instance, early this year I noted here there were noises in Britney’s "Toxic" that sounded like nu skool breaks but were approximately 1000 times better. Maybe if I cared a tinker’s cuss for Ils and Pilgrem I’d have a totally different feeling. As it is, "Toxic" vies with "Yeah" as my favorite single of the year. Both are good examples of pop-as-synthesis. If you were coldblooded enough to break "Toxic" into its constituents, you’d find R&B, techno, Bollywood, and so forth, and then this X factor element it’s tempting to call "pure pop sensibility" (although if you were even more coldblooded you could probably trace that back to earlier syntheses in the history of pop). Usher’s tune breaks down into R&B, house/techo, crunk (once a regional sub-market of rap, and at that point, sufficiently peripheral to be considered an underground, albeit a populous one).

If all the undergrounds, all the zones of Self Organised Autonomous Cultural Activity, decided to call a General Strike and refrained from coming up with anything new for five years… pop could run on empty for a while, reworking its own archive deposits. Sooner or later though an almighty dry spell would hit it.

Fortunately for everyone the SOACA zones are so helplessly fertile, and the people involved have such powerful economic pressures on them, they simply can’t withold their ideas; this ensures a steady supply of raw materials for pop to renew itself with.

(How much is Britain’s "innate pop genius" related to its imperial history as importer/processer/exporter?) * *

(And for sure undergrounds also steal and recycle ideas from pop--there's always been a reversibility to the process, and that was drastically intensified by the invention of sampling. But these transactions [jungle and UK garage’s bootleg remixes for instance, or Elephant Man versioning the melody from "Eye of the Tiger’] have a altogether different charge to them than when pop nicks ideas from below. Surely you can simply feel that? Impurism from above and impurism from below are not necessarily equivalent in terms of their "political" resonance,  although both can produce wonderfully listenable results.)

Winding up here, I guess my contention is that making a fetish of the Charts is to privilege the pop process (extraction/refinement/synthesis/distribution) at the expense of the subaltern zones of primary production, who literally come up with the goods time and time again. Glittering on your TV screen or dazzling through the radio, pop can be "the free lunch" of Kogan lore. But let’s not forget who grew the ingredients.

* indebted to CCRU's work for this opposition.

* * this analogy appropriated, in truly colonialist style, from nativist/Anglophobe/new pop hater Dave Marsh, and then inverted.

(Fuckinell, I was planning to make the blog more telegraphic and aphoristic. Oh well...)

(Further thoughts on possible reasons why such heavy investments are made in the word "pop" to follow. Right now as boss/sole employee of my own enterprise, I really ought to get back to work).

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