Foxes And Hedgehogs; or; What’s The Dilly? — Simon Reynolds talks about my end-of-year stuff on his weblog, and in turn that spawns a great big ILM Thread, and what do I say? ‘Wow’, mostly.

Well, OK, I can be a bit more articulate. First of all, the fateful sentence which seems to have been the most-quoted thing I’ve written in months — ‘We are all dilettantes now’. As I explained to the Pinefox on ILM a few weeks ago, that was a bad choice of wording, because I’m not actually talking about music taste. I’m eclectic, but not that eclectic — last year I mostly listened to rhythm-driven modern music and international chart pop and not too much else. What I’m talking about when I say ‘dilettante’ is to do with access to music – a sense that the boundaries between committed and uncommitted fans of something, and between critics and fans and gatekeepers and gatekept all seem to me to be eroding.

I was renouncing any critical authority I might have because there’s so much happening that it seems like mentalism to suggest that anyone can ‘keep on top of it’ or ‘filter’ it with any efficiency (things that seem to me to be implied in the idea of critics rounding up a year) – hence the ‘all dilettantes’ thing.

Take Dizzee Rascal, for instance, whose stupendous ‘I Luv You’ is the cornerstone of the gutter-garridge/UK bounce/underbass wave Simon Reynolds is so excitingly enthused about. It’s also the biggest omission from my end-of-year list, because I heard it too late. But the point is, I heard it. The lag between me reading about it for the first time and hearing it — between wired-in critic and intrigued reader — was three days. Back in the 90s, the lag between me reading about another Reynolds rave, Rufige Kru’s ‘Terminator’, and finally hearing it was nearer three years. In order to hear those ‘ardkore records at the time, you had to do what Reynolds himself did — commit. Do your research, learn the right names, listen to the right pirates, go to the right places, throw yourself into the culture. If you thought some subculture had big-thing potential then your commitment to that potential pretty much necessitated promising your time to it, too.

These days that isn’t the case nearly as much: all you have to do — assuming you’re online — is read the right weblogs and put a couple of hours into downloading tracks off Soulseek and Kazaa. You won’t be able to get the kind of all-round take on the subculture Reynolds worked for with ‘ardkore, but you’ll have heard the tunes. Which may not be all that matters, but it’s a lot. And what do you do with the time you’ve saved? Why, repeat the process with any other styles and subcultures you fancy. (One funny thing is that Simon R. himself is consuming gutter-G in exactly this distanced way, relying on web transmissions and care-packages of pirate-tapes from the Old Country, like a Raj diplomat taking delivery of the Times’ Court And Social)

But what about the passion? Reynolds jumps on one of my piece’s closing statements — ‘…I think the pop writer’s job is to take fads seriously, to pretend there’s something important about bootlegs, or the new rock, or gutter-garridge, or whatever else you fancy, just like the people we read pretended there was something important about Romo and Elvis Presley.’. Again, I have to say, my bad: if I’d not been so desperate to finish the damn piece off I would have noticed the can of worms ‘pretend’ was opening in that sentence, and might have swapped it for ‘assume’, hopefully losing the implications of amused distance. But even so, Reynolds seems keen to read ‘or’ here for ‘and’. The point I was making wasn’t that you should pretend everything’s important, but you should pretend the things you’re enjoying are, because that way you learn more about why you enjoy them.

Reynolds goes on to suggest that history has given its verdict — that Elvis is important, and that Romo isn’t. But that’s not how history works, for me. The impact and aftermath of Elvis changed pop at a deep level — thinking and writing about him is the equivalent of writing the kind of Big History most people think of ‘history’ as being. But that kind of history is often less interesting than the sort of micro-histories Carlo Ginzburg, or Le Roy Ladurie helped pioneer: a scenelet like Romo was fascinating, partly because it was a blatant critical attempt to impose individual will on public taste. The folly and failure of the attempt doesn’t change its nobility. Gutter-garridge is interesting even if Reynolds is completely wrong about it.

Individual will — this is where we get to the main disagreement I have with Simon, which is that dilettantism implies distance, and that this distance is leveling. It’s not that I don’t think the distance exists — I think it doesn’t manifest itself as the ‘painless, risk-free’ sensation Reynolds contrasts with ‘belief’. The distances between your life and your records, and the traces of other lives they carry, is for me one of the huge points of music — distance as something to be worried over, wrestled with, used, rather than just comfortably accepted. Reynolds is dead right when he says that Freaky Trigger’s ‘anti-manifesto’ has been trying to work out how music fits into a life, perhaps especially once you’ve made the choice not to ‘believe’, or to surrender to pop.

I am backing a scene, in other words — the only thing is it’s a one-man scene and it’s happening in my head, where the disparate musics I listen to meet. My pop passion is a solipsistic one, an internal combustion that creates plenty of hidden heartbreak and private rapture. ‘We’ may all be dilettantes, but we are all walking authenticities too — leading to the bigger question of how, and what, do we communicate?

(After that very vague response, something I concretely agree with Simon on — what’s good for the listener may well be rotten for the music-maker. I agree that tons — maybe most — of the good music I know comes from single-minded ‘culture warriors’ like Mark Acardipane. But just because they pursue the One True Path doesn’t mean their listeners have to.)