The Times are Changing Musically
The Scotsman, September 18th 2010
Music connects emotions, transports us from the here and now to strange, bewitching lands, giving us heroes and heroines to follow.
In times of change, music has played a major role. In the 1960s across the West, the Beatles, Stones and Hendrix created music for a generation of protest; in the late 1970s a divided Britain witnessed the insurrectionary sound of the Sex Pistols and the Clash; while the early 1980s saw a plethora of artists rage against Thatcher, from the Specials ‘Ghost Town’ to UB40’s ‘One in Ten’.
Hard times are returning: mass unemployment, youth disaffection, students questioning the merits of higher education. These are the conditions for a musical landscape of rebellion and protest, of proto-Billy Braggs writing songs which capture our age.
What though if the economic times turn severe and the musical soundtrack doesn’t change with it? That there turns out to be no equivalent of the Smiths ‘The Queen is Dead’ or more recently Manic Street Preachers ‘A Design for Life’ or Pulp’s ‘Different Class’?
Music is at a crossroads, culturally, as an industry, in how it is consumed and understood. The decline of ‘the indie scene’, once a powerful counter-cultural code of mostly men post-punk through the 1980s has left a huge chasm. The pivotal artists of this time: Joy Division/New Order, the Smiths/Morrissey, the Cure and Cocteau Twins, were not just musicians, but represented a way of life, a kind of alternative calling, which either explicitly or implicitly was very different from the mainstream.
Slowly and imperceptibly, indie music became an incestuous music of mostly four men, their guitars and singer, playing to a law of diminishing returns. Witness the pale imitation of indie bands from the Killers to the Kaiser Chiefs. We can now see the Britpop explosion of the mid-1990s – Blur, Oasis and the more eclectic Pulp – as the last throws of indie: reifying the past, conservative, insular, referential about itself. And profoundly English.
Indie music was mostly English chauvinist, narrowly celebrating our uniqueness and our traditions, going on about the 1960s, ‘swinging London’, 1977 and ‘Year Zero’, and ‘Madchester’, endlessly referenced in TV documentaries that use the same half dozen talking heads. Dance music, disco, soul, and music which is about having fun and being irreverent doesn’t get a look in. Step forward one Steven Patrick Morrissey, spokesperson for a generation, who has at least been consistent, writing over twenty years ago, ‘Hang the DJ’, railing against dance music, and last week, attacking Chinese people as a ‘subspecies’.
Scotland had a slightly different experience in all this, but not completely so. The 1980s gave us the cultural nationalism of artists such as the Proclaimers, Hue and Cry, Deacon Blue and Runrig, which ran its course as Thatcherism blew up.
We still have some of these artists such as the Proclaimers and Michael Marra making thoughtful, captivating records, and ‘Celtic Connections’ has become a major international success, yet we have little music infrastructure, and the blanding out of the indie scene equally affects north of the border.
Music is everywhere now and nowhere. It is in our ipods, public spaces, adverts and films, and has become background noise by which we live our lives. A special mention must go to dance act Faithless whose latest single has as its video a three minute TV commercial for Fiat cars; only to find that in today’s commercially saturated culture even ‘NME’ didn’t condemn them!
The only music show on terrestrial TV is Jools Holland’s ‘Later’; while one of the most coveted music spots is the oldest fogie in town – Andrew Marr – on his Sunday morning show. Music has become demeaned and cheapened by being everywhere, and not cared and loved by anyone Jools apart.
The rise of digital downloads and the demise of the traditional record company model has strengthened the homogenisation of music. A world promising endless choice has produced risk-averse banal record labels and artists. All of the majors who the indies used to rage against are in trouble, while the space and aesthetic of a new indie movement couldn’t be further away.
The mushrooming of talent shows such as ‘The X Factor’ and the svengali power of Simon Cowell has diminished the once glorious British tradition of trashy, glitzy pop; in the last decade that wonderful feeling of ephemeral, yet transcendental pop has only been given voice by Girls Aloud who came through the talent show, ‘Popstars’. What musical greats can Cowell claim to have given us? Will Young, Michelle McManus, Susan Boyle, the phrase ‘you made the song your own’ and endless flaccid versions of ‘Unchained Melody’.
Music festivals were seen for a while as the new way of listening to music and for artists to make money, but the explosion of festivals can now be seen as the product of the boom. Glastonbury has become part of the English summer, a slightly alternative Wimbledon, attended by hundreds of BBC personnel and lots of celebrities. As Paul Morley commented on last week’s ‘Newsnight Review’ the music festival has lost any sense of being something different culturally; the tired formula of ‘T in the Park’ is just like everywhere else. The festival experience has become to Morley redolent of ‘the passivity of masses’, the pretence of liberation and self-expression.
In a world where the Top 40 no longer matters and where we don’t have ‘Top of the Pops’ does any of this really matter? Music provides a crucial means for us to interpret and understand our lives, and connect to our emotions and those of others. Without a music of subversion, dissent and politics our lives become more bland and banal, and just about ‘product’.
Musical experimenters and innovators will always emerge and the death of the single and album, despite the Mercury Prize’s attempt to keep the latter going, has so far presented musicians with problems. The single provided a way for artists to breakthrough to a wider audience, while the album from Frank Sinatra and Miles Davis in the 1950s onward provided the platform for the ‘serious’ artistic statement long before the Beatles stumbled upon the ‘concept album’.
This musical staleness won’t continue indefinitely. The demise of the indie conceit can only be a good thing. While the crisis of the old record industry models opens up new opportunities and spaces, including for artists and bands to do things differently in Scotland.
Just don’t expect as unemployment hits three million under the Tories again for a modern day equivalent of the Specials ‘Ghost Town’ to be rising to the top of the charts.