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.