Monday, February 06, 2006

Fighting talk from K-punk

His trope of pop as undead reminded a bit of something Greil Marcus wrote in a great 1992 piece, "Notes on the Life & Death and Incandescent Banality of Rock ‘n’ Roll", for Esquire (!) (you can find it in the Faber Book of Pop, ed. Jon Savage and Hanif Kureshi). 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” (sounds more like hip hop than hair metal, these days!), 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.”

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 at the time of first reading, really irritated me--bloody babyboomers and their generational narcissism! (And I can only imagine how annoying Mark would find it!). But these days I think maybe Marcus was onto something, while also appreciating the hauntological reverberations of the phantom limb metaphor.

But back to K-punk. Really liked this idea:

What Pop lacks now is the capacity for nihilation, for producing new potentials through the negation of what already exists.”

And the example given of the syndrome struck a chord: ABC (New Pop) versus The Birthday Party (the new Rock). Light versus Dark, Upwardly mobile Health versus Romantic self-destruction. This was an even more resonant example for me because the two bands also represented my two favourite music writers (and all-time formative influences), Paul Morley and Barney Hoskyns, then engaged in a mighty agon in the pages of NME; ABC champion Morley frothing over the new cleanliness and health in pop and Birthday Party worshipper Hoskyns championing dirt, sickness, darkness, the Dionysian. I simply could not choose between these two visions, so instead oscillated wildly (PM and BH’s sole point of overlap was the Associates if I recall, although some kind of détente was later reached). If Morley was the original Popist, then Hoskyns was the original nu-rockist: one week writing about Black Flag, the next Donna Summer, the week after some anthology of Lost Soul from the early Seventies, the week after that some NYC postdisco electrofunk 12 inches, the week after that the Blue Orchids… but never as mere generalism , always with an underlying vision-quest and value-scheme somehow connecting these seemingly disparate or even incompatible sounds. Talking of weak ecumenicalism versus enflamed partisanship:

Kpunk again, rejecting the idea of music “as an archipelago of neighbouring but unconflicting options” and envisioning pop as “as a spiral of nihilating vortices.”

Yeah, 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.

Mark asks:
Where is the chorus of disapproval and disquiet about a group like the Arctic Monkeys?,” while also conceding that they’re not “significantly worse than any of their retro forebears

This brings us to the tiny Achilles heel in the argument which is that within the terms of what they do, Arctic Monkeys are (whisper it) exceptionally good. Of course it’s still possible to reject “what they do” on principle (a jihad I might have signed up for even a few months ago) but such a principled stand would mean you’d deny yourself one of the best records of the year.

I must admit when I wrote that bit in the Frieze piece about rhythmically inert Britbands and referenced “whoever’s on the cover of NME this week” I had Arctic Monkeys in mind, I just assumed from what I’d read that they’d be just another nowt-going-on-in-t'-rhythm-section indie-rock combo, fronted by an excessively cocky Northern lad singer, drawing an ever-more insular set of quintessentially English sources. On this occasion, though, the inbreeding has paid off: the family tree is narrow (Jam, Smiths, Oasis, Libertines, etc ), but for once the result isn’t an enfeebled poodle, it’s a mighty attack dog spliced out of the most potent and poignant genes of their ancestors. The drummer and bassist are uncommonly dynamic and flexible, several cuts above the Brit norm--just listen to the way they switch, on “Perhaps Vampires Is A Bit Strong But…” from Sabbath-style “heavy” dynamics to punk-funk that casually out-grooves Franz Ferdinand. Unlike Oasis, who were really like Carducci's "electric busking", singalong-plus-riffalong but dead-below-the-waist, Arctic Monkeys make physically involving music.

Also unlike Oasis, their lyrics aren't gibberish, they are actually about something. People compare Alex Turner’s words to The Streets and Pulp (actually Alex himself has made that comparison, saying he walks "the lyrical tightrope between Jarvis Cocker and Mike Skinner”), but in some ways he reminds me as much of Dizzee Rascal: the combination of cockiness and sensitivity; the way the melodies curl around the natural cadence and flow of his regional speech patterns; the jouissance of the moments when his accent, always present, asserts itself with a word or syllable that rings out completely and jarringly askew; the combination of proximity to the experiences he’s writing about and being ever so slightly above/beyond/outside them (old head on young shoulders); the sense of locality and rich verisimilitude in the details; the hunger that shakes through the voice and whips out of the speakers. (Oh yes, not forgetting the fact that internet buzz got the ball rolling…). I once fantasized about Dizzee becoming a Morrissey-like figure, his account of a very particular and relatively unusual troubled youth and his alienation from everything, coming to represent a much larger unity of alienation. Well, of course, Britain being how it is, the black artist doesn't get to be NME-readership-beloved Everykid spokesperson. Instead it's another white Northerner who gets to be the Morrissey-like figure.

One thing that’s oddly engaging about the Arctic Monkeys is how they actually subvert Sheffield’s own pop myth as the city of electr(on)ic dreams. I wonder if that’s a subconscious impulse lurking behind the line in “I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor” about the girl “dancing to electropop/like a robot/from 1984”… sort of that was then (synth Sheffield), this is now?

Their use of guitars alone is probably enough to condemn the Monkeys in some people’s eyes, including Mark’s. But you know, synths have been around a long while now, 20 or 30 years, haven't they? Long enough to signify their own kind of retro, even if it’s aa retro-futurism. So have samplers. This brings me to a larger point about the absent “chorus of disapproval and disquiet”. It’s not just that the group are great enough to be an exception to the rule, it's that the rule itself is ailing. The trouble with all the arguments that can be mustered against Arctic Monkeys is partly that these charges (Luddite, Anglo-inbred, parochial, etc) have become as stale and predictable as their music itself is purported to be. It's a critique that goes back at least as far as Oasis (although I remember people also making it about The Smiths in the mid-80s come to think of it) . What's different now from Oasis days, though, is not simply the relative freshness of the critique; it's the fact that there is much less of a sense of there being an aesthetico-moral high ground from which to make it. Circa Britpop, you could argue “this stuff is retro-gressive, if people want the true modern British pop they should listen to jungle/Tricky/uk postrockers like Disco Inferno/etc etc”. Nowadays it’s harder to see where are the vanguardist bastions on behalf of which one would launch one's volleys of indignation and disgust. Not dance music, which give or take a handful of peripheral innovators like Villalobos, has for the last half-decade or so been recycling its own history as assiduously as rock has. Hip hop and R&B are puttering along at a snail’s pace; there is a definite “same old shit in shiny new cans" syndrome at play, except the cans aren’t that startlingly novel either. E.g., I love Lil Wayne’s “Fireman” but lyrically it’s the same bleeding metaphor that Cash Money were caning 7 years back (Hot Boys, we on fire etc) while the sonix are sorta gloomcore-meets-crunk, recalling the Goth-tronica of the Horrorist, himself always on a kinda retro tip.

Sure there are innovators and extremists way out on the fringes of music, but most people can't live on fringe fare, that’s not the kind of action that Mark is pining for, that’s never going to be war-inside-pop. Like the poor, the remote-periphery experimentors are always with us.

I don’t really buy this notion of the nu-Pop as the nouveau New Pop. What it is, it’s like New Pop if New Pop had only been in the mold of Dollar; if there’d been Trevor Horn, but no ABC, no McLaren, no Frankie, no AoN/Morley. The characterless vocals, the choreographed routines, the quirk-less personalities…. it couldn’t be further from the New Pop menagerie of Adam Ant, Kevin Rowland, even the spark of a Clare Grogan. The comparison with postpunk is even more tenuous: formally there’s a strong element of retro-pastiche in the Nu-Pop, which stems from its links to mash-up culture, and draws heavily on this indigenous English-pop tradition e.g. the glitter stomp element (BTW, remind me to tell you the story of how the Monitor crew invented schaeffel)….

Grime worked as the high ground for much of this decade, but… well, that banner is looking a bit dog-eared right now. As for dubstep: jolly good stuff, i'm chuffed on the scene's behalf that its morale is so high, that the buzz is building and spreading... But the idea that it is stepping fearlessly into the future is, well, an over-estimation; it strikes me as very much a consolidation sound, it moves forward slowly and steadily, but it works from a tradition and a set of historical sources that are just as narrow as that which nourishes Arctic Monkeys. You’ll hear elements from techstep 96, from bleep’n’bass, from digi-dub… It’s roots’n’future music, like all hardcore ‘nuum sounds, but to these ears it feels like the ratio of rootical to futuroid is weighted to the former. I saw Digital Mystiks’s NYC debut the other week and the vibe was very Disciples/Iration Steppers, even harking at times back to On U Sound…

None of these points diminish the overall thrust of K-punk’s critique--he’s against Arctic Monkeys-type music on principle. But I do think there is a sense in which, at the moment, it’s much harder to single out Brit-rock as especially culpable on the retro front. There's probably a sense in which the Arctic Monkeys are a disaster in the grander sense, their very excellence will inevitably lead to the Oasis>>>Northern Uproar syndrome--droves of dismal soundalikes given a warm welcome by hapless A&R executives. In that sense I’m “against it” --but not to the actual point of denying myself the delights of the album.

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