Sunday, 12 May 2013

IN WHICH RETROMANIA GETS PERSONAL



Simon Reynolds’s blogpost of this week scratches the surface of an unseemly micro narrative that says a lot about contemporary culture, journalism, and How Bad Things Happen.

To sum-up: Eve Barlow wrote an effusively positive review in the NME of the new album by indie hype band Peace. My personal take on this is broadly the same as Simon R’s: Peace are a prize-winningly unremarkable band, and therefore the only way Barlow could say anything at all interesting about them was to engineer a phoney war between “old” (people who criticise current pop for its derivativeness) and “young” (people like Peace and their fans, who, paradoxically, don’t mind the fact that the vast majority of current pop is old, derivative, and retrogressive). From this syllogism Peace emerge as a half-way interesting proposition, a shining ideal of young-oldness, or old-youth, or some such unholy oxymoron.

Subsequently, Neil Kulkarni laid into Barlow’s argument. For all its judiciousness, Kulkarni’s attack had the unfortunate upshot of transforming the phoney war into a more or less real one. In blogposts and via social media, many people – eg. Reynolds – applauded Kulkarni’s critique. On the other side, Eve Barlow and an array of mainstream media types – Rob Fitzpatrick, Eamonn Forde – rushed to discredit the “old” Kulkarni, in a series of rather mean-spirited, even faintly bullying exchanges on Twitter that derided him as an out-of-touch ranter.


I’m compelled to enter this bunfight for two reasons. Firstly, on a basic level I find these attacks on Kulkarni (who, I should add, I don’t know personally, even if we are “friends” on Facebook) to be a tad sinister. Secondly, I think this opposition between “young” and “old” – one that both Kulkarni and Simon R replicate to a degree – is manifestly absurd, and shouldn’t be entertained as anything other than a cynical attempt by a mandarin wing of music journalism to present a shallow justification for its professional underpinning (ie. good, comment-worthy pop music), in a period when pop music of the NME/indie variety is indisputably not very interesting.

Some paragraphs of Bildungsroman. I turned 29 a couple of months back. In some uncharitable interpretations, this might make me “early-middle-aged”, or something. But surely most people would agree that I’ve got a reasonable claim to be some kind of “young”. And guess what? I don’t like Peace. Moreover, I feel pretty certain that I wouldn’t have liked them ten or even fifteen years ago. Maybe, at a push, when I was 12 or 13. But definitely not after that. By the age of 14/15 I was fortunate enough that my musical inner life had started to be shaped by encounters with the progressive tendencies of the day: the hip-hop and r’n’b of the turn of the millenium, drum n bass, techno, post-rock, left-of-centre indie (Beta Band, Mogwai, Bjork, Stereolab, et al).

It seems to me to be a simple objective fact – and I say this with no relish and much sadness – that these sorts of significant minority tendencies (which, let’s be honest, were ailing even in the late-nineties), are either non-existent or atomised to the point that they are almost invariably microcosmic and marginalised in the current climate. Okay, there’s plenty of good stuff out there, as the cliché runs. But in terms of a culture, of a wider aggregate of the good stuff, I don’t really see anything visible, and I don’t think even the positivist yea-sayers at the NME could dispute this (I’d love to be proved wrong).

My view on this hasn’t changed noticeably for well over ten years. I felt this way in 2002, when I was 17/18, when the success of bands like the Strokes and the White Stripes seemed to announce of the end of the actually-existing phase of the counter-culture. I felt at that point that I was witnessing the takeover of an ultra-corporate, pastiche-heavy, avowedly conservative strain of neoliberal art. I still feel this way today (at the end of my youth, as it were).

So I just don’t think that the claim that Peace are a “young” band – one that only “young” people can understand – is at all credible (for every teenager who likes them I would be willing to bet there is at least one who finds them just as unimpressive as I do). To slander young people in this way seems patronising and even slightly paedophilic: as though people under a certain age are clueless innocents whose vitality and naivety older music journalists should valorise and fetishise if they are not to become “sad old men” (Barlow’s phrase on her Twitter feed for Kulkarni and Reynolds).

Of course age is a relevant factor in determining artistic appreciation. But I can’t see that it has any relevance in the Peace narrative. On the other hand, questions of culture and politics do. To reiterate, I think that both music and music journalism are in a pretty bad way right now. The fate of art rises and falls with that of its society, and I take it as a given that we're currently living in a rotten, neoliberal society where rotten, neoliberal art has become hegemonic. But if you’re a salaried music journalist, of course you can’t say this. So you have two options. You either have to become an automaton who regurgitates the blithely enthusiastic language of the press release or the advert (a route taken by many); or, as in Barlow’s case, you fabricate a mock ethic – in this instance, a pretty imbecilic avowal of adolescence, of “fun”, of “sexiness”, of surface delights of all kinds.

To be honest, in a sense I agree with Barlow’s point about music not necessarily needing to be new to be worthwhile. But I do think that music has to be culturally, popularly, democratically meaningful, and meaning is one of the first things that gets lost in a retromanic culture (pastiche being an attempt to retain form while evacuating content). It’s not especially worrying to me that Peace aren’t doing anything new. But I am profoundly worried that their formal conservativism seems to come hand in hand with an attempt to escape from their historical moment and its cultural and political pressures. In the absence of a historical, social dimension to music, the leap into the pseudo-ethic of the endless childhood is predictable.


When a band – when an entire pop culture – has nothing to say, as a journalist you will most likely have nothing to say either. Hence, when someone queries your intellectual standpoint, as Kulkarni and Reynolds did in the case of Barlow, it is understandable that the reaction was one of bemusement and a retreat into the bitchy vocabulary of the playground and the ad hominem attack. Unfortunately the mainstream of music journalism right now appears to be dominated by a peculiarly virulent strain of braindead consumer hedonism, by people who simply don't acknowledge that pop music can be debated about in politico-cultural terms. It would be (sort of) alright if these people were cognisant of their position, but depressingly I fear that they're just moronic capitalistic yes-people for whom pop music is a leisure pursuit and nothing more.

I’m keen that this doesn’t become another ad hom chapter in a somewhat pathetic mini war. But I looked up Rob Fitzpatrick (one of the anti-Kulkarni Twitter sniggerers) on Google, and – focusing purely on his writing – I was profoundly unsettled by what I found. In a debate with Dorian Lynskey on the Guardian about poshness in pop in March, he said this: “Pop went through a political phase (in an attempt to sell records and fund careers) when you were young. That affected you emotionally. I understand that. But that was 25 years ago, Dorian. Let it go”. Again, we have this horrible, playground tone, and the suggestion that reading pop politically or in terms of its social eloquence is somehow “old”. I just wanted to say that I’m not that old – not yet – and for me the lack of a political culture in pop is undeniably something worth fighting against. My hope, my belief, is that millions of other young and old people feel this way too.

11 comments:

Joe K said...

'The pseudo-ethic of the extended childhood'. Your formulations are dazzling, mate. More of this - let's keep on bringing the battle to them.

Alex Niven said...

Thanks Joe. My hope is that they'll lose the battle without help from anyone else for a lack of anything coherent to say other than sniping at "old men".

Anonymous said...

I'm 29 myself and have pretty much the same view of Peace as you.

Don't you think NK's style is something of an issue in this, though? A really bloated piece, written in that ranting (I might even say 'playground bully') style which feels just as tired and predictable in its own way. Am I supposed to laugh? Be awed at the depth of his contempt? Ha! What a lot of cunts in one sentence. He writes 'ain't' and 'wanna' and 'don't mean shit' like a really cool guy would say. SCATOLOGY. It's a good argument, padded and padded and padded out with a boring, pantomime version of righteous anger.

For me, as much as the music that's out there, it feels like very little music writing, including NK, has anything fresh to say.

Alex Niven said...

I half-agree, in that NK's diction and general stylistic mode is about as far away from my own that I don't get very much from the actual experience of reading it. And I think I know broadly what you mean about scatology - that tendency to litter a piece with expletives, and the continual recourse to "passion" (which in a way is similar - though not identical - to the valorisation of adolescent "fun" I'm critiquing here).

But firstly, even if you could argue that this style is scabrous, I can't see that he's making the same kind of personally focused attacks the other lot appear to delight in (his critiques are exclusively focused on questions of creativity and ideology, whereas that Twitter exchange is just plain playground maliciousness).

And secondly, I kind of think he's on the side of the angels in terms of his view of the importance of pop and the need for a cogent pop-critical culture, so I usually acknowledge his arguments even if I have problems with the style.

Besides, I'm not really interested in this NK vs. his detractors issue, more in how the narrative exposes the paucity - I'm even tempted to say the corruption - of contemporary arts journalism.

It was interesting that aside from bitchiness the defence of current journalism seemed to be "but music journalism was shit in 1999 too". Music journalism in 1999 wasn't great, but at least it had the remnants of that politicised, intellectual culture of the post-war period - you would occasionally get a David Stubbs or a Simon Reynolds saying something educative and inspiring - and I don't even think it's a disputable point that these sorts of writers wouldn't find a way into mainstream journalism in the current climate. Also, I just don't agree with the argument that "there's always been an equal amount of good and shit music and writing about music". Music is shit today for very specific historical and political reasons, and the resort to eternalist notions of value is an attempt to escape from asking why that might be.

Sorry, I wandered a bit far from your question there.

Matthew Neale said...

I love NK's writing style, perhaps for all the reasons people are citing against him: it's sprawling, passionate, aggressive prose. It doesn't read like a Humanities undergraduate essay.

Anonymous said...

That's fair enough, if it's something you respond to. Creating a false dichotomy with the point about Humanities undergraduates though, surely?

Personally, I feel like his (valid) arguments about Peace are expressed in a way that's worn out, and that the criticism gets obliterated by all the grandstanding. The BLOCK CAPITALS. The fucking overloading a sentence with fucks to fucking fuckery for some righteous fucking humour. The psychologising bits about the subject where he can show that he *really* gets it, sees right through it all. And shit, you gotta throw some Americanisms in there to show you ain't no mealy-mouthed cunt.

To me, it feels like NK is less interested in making illuminating points about the current state of music culture than impressing us with the depth of his passion.

Mr Neil Kulkarni said...

Well, I write the way I talk and always have. That's the way it works. It comes out my brain and down my arm and out my fingers. I am as prone to sweariness & Americanisms as any other speaker of English. The piece is somewhat over-long and ill-mannered cos it's on my blog. If I was asked to write an album review by someone who'd pay me I'd do it under word count and on time. The depths of my "passion" - I don't know what this means really - If you mean I believe what I write then yeah but I think you can both illuminate and 'impress' - you say 'impress' like it's a bad thing for writing to want to do but writing that's non-academic I think should in some regard be a performance. One thing that's surprised me about the attacks I've had in the past year or so is this assumption I have some 'power': I'm just some poxy guy from Coventry with a blog and am staggered that my 'detractors' can bring themselves to give a shit frankly.

Anonymous said...

But maybe the assumption that you have some kind of 'power' comes from the style? That's what your performance feels like it's about in a lot of ways, for me. That's what I mean by 'impress.'

(And surely writing can't just be the way you talk, straight from your brain to your fingers, and a performance, artifice at the same time?)

Anyway, as I say, I agree with a lot of the points you made in your piece, and I haven't followed enough of what's happened in the last year to know about what your detractors have been saying. This just touched on the fact that, as someone who used to read a lot of music writing, find it enlightening and energising, I now feel like a lot of what I (try to) read covers the same old ground and doesn't add anything to my love for music.

RJC said...

This had all passed me by until I read this piece, but Forde, Fitzpatrick and Barlow really don't come out of that Twitter spat at all well. The fact that Rob Fitzpatrick has himself down as 'Music Consultant for Spotify' says more about him and the part he plays in music/music writing/popular culture than anything he might write.

Music is in a seriously sorry state right now - please, somebody, somewhere, sometime, sell me something interesting, for fuck's sake. You know?

Alex Niven said...

I heard Peace on the radio just now. They don't even sound like some of the more exalted bands people compare them too.

They sound like the fucking Wombats.

GRK. said...

"Slightly paedophilic" doesn't make sense as an accusation here, but apart from that, thanks for writing so much sense. The "Don't like, don't listen, simples" attitude makes me want to shake people until their teeth chatter.