alex thomson

Jun 05

Blobby blobby blobby

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If this is true, and BB has had Maxwell “shelling prawns to the sounds of Aqua, Chesney Hawkes and Mr Blobby” then can we assume that a) BB is trying to ease the strains of the task by playing dickboy great pop tunes; or b) BB hates fun?

Jun 05

My theory of everything

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It’s not often that Simon Renolds reminds me of Alexis Petridis, but his 10th June comments on blissblog have a definite echo of Petridis’s Lost in Music Guardian Review cover story from last October. As professional music critics both Reynolds and Petridis confess to feeling a little overwhelmed by the sheer volume of music released, in the case of the latter, and the generally ‘pretty good’ quality of most of it, for the former. Neither is a stupid man, and both are tantalisingly close to identifying the most significant developments in popular music at the moment, but neither is able to bring those developments into focus.

Let me ask you a question: what did the death of John Peel mean? Not on a personal level, but on a cultural one. The fact that Peel could not be replaced might be due in part to the man’s enormous and unique appeal as a broadcaster, but what it really signals is a massive structural shift in the relationship between the popular music industry and the public sphere. Because criticism defines itself in relation to the public sphere, the inevitable result is a felt crisis for what we might call generalist critics: i.e. those whose role depends consists in taking an overview of popular music as a whole, rather than in specialising in one genre.

Petridis and Reynolds testify to the subjective side of these events: more records, higher quality across the board. This seems like a problem because for anyone whose job is to sift through the output of the music industry and identify the most important or the best albums of the year, this will seem like cultural entropy: fewer clearly-defined peaks in the year’s product making it harder to discriminate between releases. Of course, no critic has ever managed to keep all of the year’s music in view at once, or would wish too, as pretty powerful filters instantly rule out certain types of music from being considered for the kind of attention (broadsheet coverage, awards, mainstream TV) that defines this interface between the entertainment industry and public cultural recognition.

(An aside: my happy hardcore theory for which I have very little evidence, is that the happy hardcore and handbag tradition has been the most consistenly good genre in British music of the last fifteen years or so, and with a pretty strong track record of chart crossover hits. This is music based around basic rythmns, highly repetitive, and ultra-melodic, which has consequently never been seen as worthy of serious critical acclaim, and at the point where cheesy trance crosses over into Friday night office worker disco music, it is the most widely despised and abused form of British pop. Being blanked by the generalist critics, and abused by almost everyone else, has been the best thing that could have happen to it, although it’s subterranean influence can be felt all over the place (e.g. Crazy Frog, obv.) This also makes Dave Pearce the most important man in the UK!)

The objective side of these events is the increasing trend towards narrowcasting, not just in the media, i.e. the point of distribution of pop, but in the production of pop too. What Peel stood for was a space on Radio 1 for any — and more importantly ALL — kinds of alternative music. By the time of his death, this was completely anachronistic. The digital revolution in radio and above all the internet has made it more and more easy to direct what people want to hear straight at them. Why listen to all the reggae and jungle on Peel if all you want is twee indie-pop? Or why have to sit through cinerama when all you want is industrial and darkwave?

This seems like a bit of a shame to me: but then I’m aligned with Reynolds and Petridis on the subjective side of the dialectic. Most of the phenomena which obsess the bloggist/ILMweb fit into this pattern: the perceived decline of the charts, the weaknesses of the British music press, the tedium of miserabilist British rock (Coldplay/Keane etc.). The erosion of a central cultural public sphere cannot be acknowledged with that sphere, so what remains will feel and look hollow: the charts and the magazines both depend on a model where everyone has to take notice of some ‘event’ records. But the kind of popular rock music which has come to dominate that ‘centre’ is obviously a pompous and bombastic genre of its own, as more and more people simply ignore it, and its claim to grand cultural attention seems emptier and emptier. 6music for example, is a museum for old alternative musical forms, and there is a growing market for bands which don’t do more than sound like old bands, so their listeners can enjoy the sense of keeping up with the scene while not having to listen to anything unusual or unfamiliar. (And there’s not necessarily anything wrong with this).

So rather than thinking of the music world in terms of different genre categories, some of which feed into a central super-genre (which supposedly tells us about the nation’s cultural life as a whole), the decline of the centre means there are only the different genre streams, going stronger than ever. The division of musical labout inevitably means increasing specialisation amongst the workforce, and an increase in quality across the board. The law of diminishing returns will inevitably set in, meaning lots of very good but not brain-bustingly brilliant records being made. The renaissance of country, and of metal, are great examples of this I think.

This is good news for people who are obsessive about one genre, and for critics who focus on one genre. This is very bad news for anyone who likes to believe in the myth of a cultural centre (i.e. the myth which the cultural centre has projected about itself, and which generalist criticism has a strong interest in upholding, since its sense of cultural purpose is defined by it). However it is also good news for anyone who wants to hop across genres — pick pretty much any talked-about CD from one, and it’s liable to be relatively decent. Those critics who take genre seriously (e.g. obviously Eddy and Kogan) will not have problems dealing with this, in fact might not even have noticed the shift — which is not a new one, but one which has simply become more evident in the last year or so — since they weren’t so busy worrying about the centre in the first place.

I don’t really have a conclusion, and I suspect this will either seem obvious to you, or completely full of holes, so I’ll end with another aside, in place of ever getting round to writing about Rip It Up and Start Again properly. What it seems to me is the real motivation for the interest in post-punk is that this is a point at which alternative music as a shadow of the cultural centre / super-genre comes into being. So it allows the critic to fantasise an inverted world in which the alternative scene IS or becomes the actual centre: a pervasive fantasy in which Love Will Tear Us Apart beats Angels for whatever that preposterous award last year was. Simon is not simply imagining that things have changed, so the charge that he is being nostalgic is plain daft, but the most telling chapter of the book is the final one on MTV in which changes in media / distribution of music come into the foreground for the first time. There’s more to say about the ‘art’ question which overdetermines this and the nouveau-rockism issue. Anyway, this is all written through a hangover, so errors are inevitable!

Jun 05

My woman is shite

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At some point in the last week I worked out that Malcolm Middleton is singing ‘My loneliness shines’ on the song called, erm, ‘Loneliness Shines’ which has been all over 6Music, not as I had originally heard ‘my woman is shite’. (i.e. probably at the point where I heard the DJ name the track s/he had just played.) While certainly a more pleasant sentiment, and less of a nod to the popular caricature of Falkirk’s finest misogynist rocksters, I still think my misheard lyric would have been a much better starting point should Middleton have wanted to avoid producing dreary self-pitying romantic drivel.

Jun 05

Coldplay again (and again and again).

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Radio 1’s seemingly never-ending devotion to the Coldplay album — exclusive tracks! interviews! reports on the making of the record! — repeats the farce of their coverage of the Robbie Williams Knebworth concerts. When a section of the BBC becomes so associated with the launch of a particular product there seems to be an inevitable double-bind: is Radio 1 really benefiting from being identified with a genuine cultural event (all three of those words being equally questionable), or is it just providing free publicity / hype for Coldplay, Williams or whoever it happens to be? The argument for commercial interests to get into bed with Radio 1, as the holder of a monopoly on national FM pop radio, is indisputable, but there just doesn’t seem to be a strong enough justification for the other side of the equation. Why should the taxpayer contribute to boosting the sales of a major act? I’m not sure that I’ve explained this very well, but I just don’t see how such blanket coverage — even the daytime DJs who blatantly hate music seem to have been roped in on the act — can be justified in a case like this, and the only solution I can see (abolish radio 1 / allow a competing commercial national station on FM) looks like a bit of a pyrrhic victory.

May 05

Culture Wars: one step forward one step back

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Former UN worker barred from charity gig because incorrectly ‘authentic’. If this is true (link from popjustice) then things are worse than we thought. The alliance of bleeding heart crypto-liberalism with the elitism of the arts open up a new front in the war on pop. If discrimination on grounds of ethnicity is banned, why isn’t discrimination on the grounds of ‘authenticity’? (And of course, ethnicity = authenticity, for much of the left.)

May 05

More on the frog.

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I think Tom is probably right when he says on ILX that if it starts a trend of ringtone-themed hits it won’t be a great thing. However, isn’t this the wrong way round to look at things? I’m sure I went on ages ago (probably in a comments box so lost in the ether now) about how the consumption of pop is changing very rapidly, blah blah blah, but in particular because of the market in ringtones. I’m sure there must be tracks that will have sold more ‘copies’ as a ringtone than as a CDS. It can really only be a matter of time before people start writing tracks which will sound a bit lame on the radio, but totally fucking shred on a polyphonic phone. (Of course the ‘real’ ringtones screw this slightly, if they are what I think they are, but even then the limits of the speakers on a phone must mean, for example, that putting arse-quaking bass on your track is a waste of time.) Now the download and singles charts have merged, how long before the ringtone charts are merged in as well? At which point a Crazy Frog single (and there’s another coming out in a couple of weeks I think, so this could go on all summer, but more likely will dry up overnight and we’ll all be wondering what the fuss was about) will look like a quaint anachronism.

May 05

Culture Wars: Coldplay vs Crazy Frog

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Some of our readers will remember the cultural enormity of the summer 2000 Spiller / Victoria Beckham chart battle, as memorably covered on popjustice at the time, and whose outcome is recorded here on NYLPM. It is my duty to summon you to do your duty in a new, and even more significant cultural moment. The fate of Britain hangs in the balance, as new Coldplay and Crazy Frog singles are both out on Monday. I’m sure there is no need to remind you of the middlebrow horror that Coldplay represent, and their pivotal position in the brain-bashing hegemony of tastemakers and gatekeepers across the media spectrum. But perhaps it is worth reminding you that a vote for Crazy Frog is a thumbs up to cultural detritus, to the inexplicable, vulgar and naff, to the whims of the demos which British politics is organised to suppress, and which the BBC exists to destroy. So when you put your hands in your pockets on Monday and buy a CD single most 12 year olds would feel ashamed of owning, a slap in the face for smug yoghurt-eating celebrity no-mark Chris Martin is only a happy side-effect of a blow for cultural autonomy.

May 05

Museum of Pop

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I realised last night that one of the things I enjoy about Eurovision is that it seems like a museum of pop: leaving aside the more ersatz ethnic elements liberally spooned over some of the entrants, this is mostly an extraordinary collage of past and present pop styles, often in the course of the same entry. The only country not to make it through the semi-final that NYLPM readers might have enjoyed was Estonia — whose Vanilla Ninja DID get through, as Switzerland’s representative, although with a fairly weak slice of eyeliner-metal. Suntribe’s ‘Let’s Get Loud’ could best be described as spice-girls-aloud, and their stage show was basically 5-deck DJ action, with each member of the group posing with a single turntable and some brightly coloured 12″s as props, before emerging in the final stages for the usual choreographed showdown. Other entries to look out for on Saturday night, on the strength of their showing yesterday: Norway’s Wig-Wam (tasty soup of every hardrock staple ever: spandex catsuit — check; enormous headband — check; scarves on mic stand — check; pilot’s / officer’s peaked hat — check; fat drummer — check; erm… leather cowboy? — check); Romania, whose steel-drum and beer-keg bashing antics came on like one of the more arty Pet Shop Boys stage shows, before out came the angle-grinders for full on Faust / Neubaten racket; Moldova’s horrid Leveller’s-style ska-punk-folk crusty-convoy-hop; Hungary’s gypsy caravan / glam racket collision; and Israel, whose singer’s cleavage has totally erased any recollection of what the song was like.

May 05

On the Streets

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One of the things I do like about election time are the posters. I like the posters displayed in people’s windows, although that seems to be less and less common these days. The only posters on our street were ours and the flat across the road where someone else we know lives, a very active labour enthusiast. Ours have come down since we’re trying to sell the flat!! (property before politics = sign of the times). But I especially like the posters on lampposts, which are only allowed to go up in the week before the elections. (Saturday night I think: Lib Dems were early since some had gone up at the edge of the Meadows by the time we left the restaurant on Friday night.) I like the sense of political theatre taking to the streets, and although I was tempted to shout abuse at the nationalists putting up theirs yesterday afternoon, I like the thought that this is campaigning at the local level, one of the few really visible bits of party activity which is not driven from central offices (i.e. posters >>> PEBs no contest). I like the colours, and the gentle sense of chaos they give to drab streets. I can’t imagine anyone being persuaded to vote by seeing a poster on a lamppost, but maybe that’s why I like it: one of the few times people involved in politics at the constituency level are allowed to advertise not so much their political party but politics itself. This election may not be much of a political event (in the sense of either a tough competition, or of a genuine choice) but as a celebration of the possibility of politics (and therefore of its possible future reinvention or renewal) the street posters are like a visual check that the body politic is still displaying its vital signs.

Apr 05

Murmurs 1: Wiley = Kylie

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Murmurs 1: Wiley = Kylie

As usual I’m probably the last person on earth to hear the MP3 that’s floating around of Lethal B dissing Wiley over ‘Can’t Get You Out of My Head’ (“merk him with his own rhythm”). Needless to say it sounds fantastic, high NRG pop turning out to be just as appropriate a backing for the attention-deficit hyper-velocity schoolyard slang-slinging as anything more, ahem, grimey. Probably best heard in the context of this revealing interview in which Lethal stresses “the beef is real but professional still”. The whole point of the slur associating Wiley with Kylie is an attack made on ‘rockist’ grounds — “I’m an artist, you’re just a rave MC”. But the ultra-kinetic aesthetic of the track, the possibility of hearing the backing track as something other than dissonance, interposes to suggest that a ‘real’ grudge is always going to depend on its ‘professional’ context… “it’s all hype, we’re both business men”. I understand ‘pop’ to be the something like the principle of publicity which makes possible the release of a signal in the first place. The attempt to keep it real is always the necessary step to restrict or define the ‘proper’ communication of the signal, to separate it from the background noise: just as essential if I want to put my point across effectively to a reader as if I want to sell certain types of record to a particular audience. There’s no question of doing without the real, just as there’s no such thing as pure ‘pop’, no unmediated listening. But just as the signal can always be just noise if we’re not willing or able to hear it, so the reality effect will always be an epiphenomenon of the energies which make it possible but against which it has to fight for its survival. To hear Lethal’s tracks as pop, as more Kylie than Wiley, is not to reject their ‘contexts’ but to expose a more fundamental communicative ‘ground’ (exposure, errancy), but one which disperses the possibility of ranking one signal as more fundamental (‘realer’) than another.