November 26, 2012 § Leave a comment

Friday’s The Joy of the Single documentary was roughly as reductive & absurd as we’ve come to expect from BBC Four (who are, still, the only people willing to put time & money into making TV music history docs – a pity they don’t get in some pop history writers who know their stuff to do the scripts). The procession of talking-heads was of a slightly higher calibre than usual, or at least slightly higher up the slope of the ‘brow from middle towards high, but Lavinia Greenlaw cranked out her usual public-schoolgirl-but-I-was-a-punk-me anecdotes, & Paul Morley (with whom, in his loud tweed jacket & floppy greying side-quiff, I’m converging in appearance at a frightening rate) retold his (not bad) story about buying ‘Ride A White Swan’ in the Mersey Way centre in Stockport. Otherwise it was mostly a parade of adjectives illustrating whatever cliche the voiceover had just suggested: “there’s something about great singles you can’t pin down”, “mysterious”, “so memorable”, “you have such a tactile relationship to it” ad nauseum. The problem really is that the doc comes so close to actual thought but then fails to make it; the things it addresses, even if it does so in the ready-to-hand agglomerations of cliche, are real & as vital as they want to suggest. The problem, again, is one of temporality: talk of the single, the process (de Certeauian academics would say ‘practice’) of listening to them, is conducted in the conditional present (“you would listen to this…”) as if they weren’t  speaking of an obsolete technological form, as if this way of hearing weren’t hearing retrospectively, as if they weren’t hearing into the past or the way of hearing they once practiced. The archive footage conspired with the text: coffee-bars, dance-halls, youth clubs, Teddy Boys, girls of 16 & 17 w/ perfectly mussed hairdoes jiving as if neoliberalism had never happened, wh/ it hadn’t quite yet. (Sidenote: what sort of records did Friedman & Hayek like? No doubt Adam Curtis will provide the answer soon enough, but in the meantime – on a postcard.) No joke: Noddy Holder looked as if might burst while describing how his young “sap would rise” by the end of a youth-club night, when “you’d dance close with the girl”. Technicolor footage of teenagers & suits in a record shop that functioned, we are told, as “an altar” to the form of the 7″, attended by girls in beehives. The pop 45 required the existence of a pop market & teen culture with disposable income, spare time, passions for enjoyment not yet dulled by decades of the factory; it was conditional, then, on a particular moment, whose almost paradisical form doesn’t need to be spelled out, from the perspective of a Europe in the midst of a triple-dip recession & the relentless dismantling of the welfare state. The nostalgia isn’t in itself reprehensible, except in the case of Jack White & Richard Hawley’s usual covert-snob primitivism (“downloading music – it’s not the same”): the historical telescope through which the post-war golden age (if we feel that’s what it was) is seen needs to be understood as what it is, & the (political) history of Technik as a piling-up of obsolete forms can only be understood with this in mine. But to outline a history without pathos is to obliterate the very thing the historian claims to be describing – the utopian flash of the moment, that the pain of separation from that present clarifies within it. The bodily & sonic arcadia of boomer adolescence is scaled-out into the false universal of the commodity. (From the record-store footage mentioned above, cut to Wombles producer Mike Batt, rubbing his face against an imaginary 7″ as if it could kiss back – Benjamin’s aura gone as far wrong as can be imagined.) Those of us who listen to the history of pop & its forms now – I went through a rush of buying vinyl, & particularly 7″s, when I was 18, a fact no doubt linked to explosive sexual frustration – hear in time, in more than one sense.


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