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!