pop & the crisis (slight return)

September 7, 2012 § Leave a comment

Haha oh dear. Waste not want not: just found this draft of something I wrote for the New Statesman culture blog last year, setting out the soar-&-the-crisis thesis for that audience. I wouldn’t stand by about half of this now, or would at least require big qualifications/rewrites/finessing. Particularly it seems maybe too pessimistic (was feeling quite depressed at the time though: graduate-without-a-future tings, girl-trouble, the aftermath of the riots). The account of ideology is also sorely lacking. May try to write some after-thoughts as a way of thinking about where we’re up to.


For the short-sighted, it appears that pop hasn’t even registered the crisis. The rash of ‘in the club’ numbers in the charts over the past year or two – Taio Cruz’s ‘Dynamite’, Black Eyed Peas’ ‘The Time (Dirty Bit)’, Jason Derulo’s ‘Don’t Wanna Go Home’ – noted by J. Scarlett at No Good Advice, presents the analyst of contemporary history with an odd picture. Swaggering through the club, champagne glass in hand, a girl under each arm, is an activity of ‘the good times’. The traditional counter-theory, of course, is one of simple pleasure: working-class people go to clubs and discotheques, listen to songs about clubs and discotheques, to bury frustration in hedonism, to forget the worries of the working week. At a moment when economic crisis, civil unrest and worsening conditions for those who do have jobs (casualisation, low-and-declining real wages) dominate people’s lives, they want to escape, so the theory goes, and the market panders accordingly.

The problem is that clubs aren’t really clubs, not any more. The ‘escapism’ theory might once have been true, in the days of factory workers spilling out Friday evening to northern soul clubs; now, at least as it pertains to what’s currently filling the charts, it misses the profound disconnect between concrete life and pop life, between ideology and the structure of feeling around hedonism. Clubs in songs aren’t the sweaty, loud, overpriced, bouncer-patrolled spaces of real life, but symbols of infinite promise, fulfilled and to come: the protagonist is always having an amazing time (“the club is jumping”) and in the future tense is even more filled with pleasure (“tonight’s gonna be a good night!”). This vision of superflux, of bounty, was the point on which contemporary capitalism hinged during the period between the 80s stock-market boom and the start of the financial crisis – the riches of the free market – floating free of the conditions that made it: the 5 days of enforced labour that frame the weekend. If leisure is the only thing that justifies or makes tolerable work, then the ubiquity and formal changes of club songs show a desperation setting in, an increasingly palpable edge to the intolerability of work, the fracturing of that promise from within.

Since the beginning of the financial crisis, we’ve seen an enormous loss of confidence in pop. This might not seem obvious to those used to the monolithic productions of Will.i.am or David Guetta, but it’s palpable when compared to the ease, self-assurance and effortless innovation of chart-pop in the early 00s. The voices of the moment are those of Ke$ha and Jessie J – brash, swaggering with feigned ‘attitude’, characterless; rather than personalities, who could colour a lyric just with an intonation (witness Aaliyah or Amerie’s work – or, for that matter, a singular figure like Beyonce), they’re cartoon characters, parodies of themselves. Lyrics and the rhythmic shape of songs have become hectoring, bashing the listener over the head with their proclamations of enjoyment; the bodies of songs become squashed and overblown, so that verses turn into rhythmic flatlines while the chorus becomes a climactic spike, the sole purpose of the song being to reach it. They protest very much too much.

Alongside the lyrical reversion to the club scenario has been what Simon Reynolds has called the “Ibiza-fication of pop”, a musical reversion to “Gatecrasher or Love Parade circa 1999”. Even those songs which aren’t copied straight from the templates of trance and Euro-house have been infected with formal deformations that come out of those musics: as hip-hop, whose early 00s renaissance dominated the charts and animated pop with its influence, went on the wane, dance music seems to have taken its place in the pop ecosystem. I say seems, because it isn’t simply a question of the invisible hand of the market shifting in the right goods: the change outpaced the often difficult-to-gauge loyalties of dancers and audiences; it wasn’t simply a shift in the preferences of the individual agents creating pop, but a shift in personnel, as veteran producers of house, trance and 90s teen-pop came back into favour. (Have a glance at the production and writing credits of the last Katy Perry and Flo Rida albums: trivia-hounds of 90s Swedish and American pop will recognise everyone.) But in comparison to them the typical hit song’s dynamics are distorted, even more extreme.

Reynolds’ own explanation – that it plays well to the biggest demographic in the market, children and tweens – doesn’t really feel sufficient. His underlying position, set out in his new book Retromania, that British and American pop culture has reached a point where innovation in the old sense no longer happens, addicted to its own past, gets further: what he calls “now-pop” is dominated by the forms of the last two decades. He never, however, offers any convincing account of why this is so, except for the sudden availability of huge swathes of past music via the internet. It is, in part, a reproduction of Fredric Jameson’s idea, in his book Postmodernism, that under the form capitalism has taken since the early 70s (what the economist Ernest Mandel calls “late capitalism”), the logic of culture does not operate via the production of new ideas, by originality in the sense we’re used to, in connection with the history of art in modernity, instead being dominated by strategies of pastiche, quotation and reconstruction – what Jameson calls the “nostalgia mode”. But as Mark Fisher – a frequently-cited cohort of Reynolds, who was making similar arguments in these pages in 2009 – has suggested, that logic belongs with an historic sequence that, it appears, came to an end with the financial crisis. Under postmodernism, art is absorbed wholly into the commodity system; the disruption of that system, and the circuits of financial capitalism that underpin it, engenders a crisis of style.

At social-democratic capitalism’s mid-century height, when workers’ leisure hours grew alongside productivity, pop music looked like an escape, a manifestation of the potential of an ever more promising working life; at Motown the relentless flow of hit records, the consuming power of each 3-minute stretch, coupled dancers to the rhythms of the production line. Now, pop feels like labour in other ways: inescapable, exhausting, numbing, unproductive. Hence Scarlett’s astute description of Derulo’s performance as “workmanlike”: the pop singer and listener are caught, like the classic industrial worker, in a confining, unnatural rhythm; here, even enjoyment is drudgery. Where not lacking in lustre, contemporary pop is characterised by a troubled and troubling excess – think Lady Gaga’s ever-expanding outfits, the arms race to produce the dumbest party anthem, Kanye West’s obsessive self-stylisation (see the 30-minute video to last year’s ‘Runaway’) – that often accompanies a slightly pallid substance, as if impelled by a burgeoning, destabilising anxiety. Itbelatedly proves Theodor Adorno’s pronouncement that free time is a “continuation of the forms of profit-oriented social life”. That life falling apart at the seams, and so is pop.


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