May 18th, 2011 | Published in Articles
I bought a copy of The Wire this week, for the first time in a few months. The draw was flicking through and finding an article by Simon Reynolds – Retromania/ Excess all areas (depending on whether you believe the article or the contents page), a “sequel” to his book of the same name, which I’ve yet to take a look at. It’s accompanied by some pretty great drawings by Viktor Timofeev that look like blueprints for offices and street furniture in a David O’Reilly remake of Tron, and the article itself, along with another by Clive Bell on Sea Shanties looked (and turned out to be) worth the price of entry.
Reynolds, it goes without saying, is an interesting writer. Even where you find yourself disagreeing with him his writing is articulate and incisive enough that the disagreement is bound to be a productive. This piece tackles the effect of the digital revolution on our relationship to the past, the album and fandom, and while I sometimes found myself nodding in recognition, it provoked enough interesting disagreement that I wanted to put something down on paper. The article covers quite a bit of ground, and I’ll only pick up on a couple of points here, so for the sake of this article I’ll point out that the original is well worth grabbing and summarise the salient points. The main thrust of the piece, as I read it, is that digital file-sharing and social networking have changed the experience of relating to music in many ways, some positive and some negative. Having outlined some of the merits, Reynolds’ article, with apology, explores only the demerits, arguing that post digital culture is dominated by unproductive recirculation, incoherent excess and the undermining of our experience of time (the internet being structured thematically rather than temporally, means that we lose historic context for bands and movements) and space (opening up local scenes to worldwide influence and dissemination) – and that these qualities make it all but impossible for the intensities productive of youth and counter-cultural movements to arise, or for coherent artworks to be created.
There’s much, even in this partial summary, which is undeniable – the internet by connecting everything with everything undeniably obscures the organic connections between a band or movement and the era which produced it. And as for space we only need to look to global dance culture, which is now dominated by the cross-fertilisation of local scenes with globally successful forms like house, Miami bass and dubstep – resulting in genres like baile funk and kwaito, which then feed back into house and dubstep and spread into still other areas of the world – until lines of influence become difficult, occasionally even pointless, to trace. There’s an undeniably positive aspect to this – if nothing else the music is often fantastic – but Reynolds argues that it also means “local scenes and regional sounds dissolve like sugar in water”.
That dissipative effect of digital culture, as compared with the intensification characteristic of the Events of pre-digital culture is one of two central points in Reynolds’ piece – the other being the question of our relation to the musical archive. Both are interesting and I want to come back to the second issue in a later piece, but for now I want to look at Reynolds’ arguments around the dissipative effects of digital culture and its effect on our ability to produce events and coherent artworks. Under the old regime, which Reynolds calls the Analogue System, cultural channels were few and largely one directional – most of us had 4 or 5 tv channels and a radio, and the limited choice, he suggests, created events:
This apparatus created mass experiences, mobilisations of energy and desire. But it also brought into being undergrounds, subcultures that grew in the darkness, outside mediation. In time, these would break through into the mainstream, via certain libidinally charged thresholds … they would change pop and be changed by it. It was hard to break through, but if those barricades could be surmounted, things would then get propelled into mainstream consciousness and couldn’t be ignored”
It’s a persuasive argument at a formal level, and has a certain familiarity to it – looking outside of music, the Arab Spring for example no doubt owes something of its vigour to the long repression of certain attitudes which are only now breaking through into the mainstream of the countries involved. Major political and cultural events are, undeniably often born when suppressed feelings finally breaks the barrier of their oppression – but Reynold’s argument veers close to assuming that the repression and opposition of a specifically monolithic cultural infrastructure are the only conditions under which intensities grow and produce events. After years of the left holding up decentralised rhizomatic thinking against the hierarchical monolith of the mainstream, now having achieved an hierarchically flat, rhizomatic internet culture it’s as though we’re suffering from a kind of Stockholm syndrome, as though we’re becoming nostalgic for our prior deprivations – “they slapped me awake every day at 5am… but at least back then I had a routine.” That’s not at all to say that we shouldn’t criticize what Mark Fisher has been calling interpassivity in social networking and filesharing – but I’m suspicious when people hold The Way Things Were Way Back When as the only game in town, and I wonder if Reynolds almost does that here.
I also have a few reservations about Reynolds’ account of what we’ve lost. Another quote from the piece:
“Intensities possible under the Analogue System have been replaced by distraction and a kind of restless ‘circulation for its own sake’”
The second part of this is hard to argue with, we’re all familiar with this aspect of modern life – hours spent flicking between browser tabs or passing on and receiving links, bad jokes, memes, link based prank-memes, memes about link based prank-memes… but I’m less certain about the first part. Much of digital culture is aimless and distracted, but has this aspect of it really replaced the intensities and creative currents of Way Back When?
For sure, Reynolds is right that claims about the new mobilizations of creativity that the internet offers have been exaggerated and in reality are often swamped by noise. While the internet produced Wikipedia out of little more than peoples wasted hours and otherwise private obsessions, for most of us the internet is also – and perhaps primarily – an enormous generator of essentially passive mental oblivion. But this isn’t neccessarily a zero sum game – you don’t lose one youth movement for every 1000 LOLcats. Before the internet I wasn’t all focus and creative intensity either. As a kid I used to watch enormous amounts of television, my experience is that people of my parents’ generation or even 5-10 years older than me still do watch an enormous amount – and very little of that viewing consists of revelatory events – there were always several hundred million episodes of Cash in the Attic for every Neil Armstrong setting foot on the moon or Joy Division performing Transmission at the BBC.
And it wasn’t only technological distractions that ate up time under the Analogue System – teenagers less enamoured of tv and the internet have been sitting around in parks or street corners drinking cider and smoking for as long as there have been teenagers. Boredom and the desire for that kind of oblivion grow in direct proportion to affluence and leisure time. The 60s, time of the more optimistic forward looking utopianism that Reynolds signals in his piece by referencing Marcuse and McLuhan, was also the time of Andy Warhol. The most recent issue of Cabinet magazine includes a paragraph on Warhol’s Kitchen, a film where a handful of bored actors confined to a claustrophobic, cage-like kitchen carry on “disjointed conversations bathed in blasé sexuality and downtown disaffection” – delibidinised sex, dissafection, disjointedness, filling the time. Norman Mailer said of the film: “one hundred years from now they will look at Kitchen and see the essence of every boring dead day one’s ever had in a city and say, “yes, that is the way it was in the late Fifties and early Sixties, in America”. Trade the kitchen for a message board (or a village pub) and the scene is incredibly familiar. Gossip, delibidinised flirting and tired jokes, all circulating for circulation’s sake – saying something to have something to say. The Mailer quote finishes “that’s why they had the war in Vietnam. … that’s why the horror came down”, pointing out that not all outbursts of repressed will under a one-sided cultural regime are creative.
So wasted energy, and the circular stagnation of aimless delibidinised communication are nothing new – and doesn’t that posit lolcats, LilB, and the general snipey, weightless pop recirculation currents of the internet as descendants and technological upgrades of the existing currents of circular stagnation, rather than stagnations of culture’s more active currents – cultural allegiance, youth tribes and whatever other creativities you hold dear? A lot depends on whether we actually still manage to muster cohesive artworks and youth tribes. Reynolds’ paragraph, from above, continues “Fanatical identification with an artist, scene or youth tribe has given way to drifting eclecticism and partial allegiance. The album as cohesive artwork whose internal temporality the listener submitted to, has been displaced by the playlist and the mix”
Again, there’s some familiar truth in this – mp3s do seem to be fracturing the album, ever more emphasis is placed on the individual track, and albums fracture in coherence under the influence of the mix or playlist – often products of many producers and styles.
But didn’t that start well before the digital era, with disco and hiphop? And didn’t it continue and intensify with Jungle – one of the last great pre-digital cultural movements (and one which Reynolds continually refers back to in his own writing as a font of forward-looking technological utopianism)? Didn’t pop begin its recorded life instantiated in singles, not albums, and haven’t there always been those who argued that this was its purest form?
But more significant than any of this, we do actually seem to be seeing a resurgence of interest in the album as coherent statement – and from precisely the quarter we might least expect it. Reynolds suggests, and quite rightly, that it’s the under-25s who will show the greatest effects of the internet on their listening and creating habits. “If you’re under the age of 25 and have grown up with a relationship to music based around total access and the erosion of the sense of sounds belonging to a historical sequence, thinking about music in terms of development through time becomes alien and unrecoverable”
Which brings us neatly to Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All, a hip hop crew with the most post millennium internet-culture name you could possibly hope for, and best known by their acronym to boot – OFWGKTA. ROFL. They’re not only under 25, but on the whole, under 20, and in every way a product of the internet culture they grew up with. Over the last couple of years they have marketed themselves from obscurity into a cult phenomenon using tumblrs, twitter, facebook, lofi pranky youtube videos. In fact until very recently this was the only way they existed – everything was released free through the internet. But despite all this, and perhaps improbably, the three most exciting products of the group so far, Earl Sweatshirt’s Earl, and the two albums, Bastard and Goblin by defacto leader Tyler the Creator, have not only been coherent albums, they’ve been concept albums, following a narrative and with a fairly high level of stylistic continuity. Now, anyone familiar with the band and its fondness for hoodrat profanity-brinksmanship and outlandish references to rape and casual violence might argue that these records are not going to challenge Van Dyke Park’s Song Cycle for sophistication. But then neither is Pulp Fiction in the mould of Citizen Kane. Despite naivety and crudity – and yes hovering questions of homophobia and misogyny – these are coherent, articulate, witty, and in many ways sophisticated albums dealing in narrative.
Now I’d say this is an odd development for youth culture in general, even before you factor in the post-digital question. One of the less convincing things about Reynolds’ argument is that he seems to conflate the coherent album with authentic youth tribalism. In fact, very few of the authentic documents of youth tribalism have taken the form of coherent, narrative albums. The coherent album, let alone the concept album, was never of a piece with young excitable kids rebelling against the idiocy of their parents’ world – it was a marker of “sophistication” an indicator that an act had moved on from youthful things and were now serious artists. How many coherent jungle albums were made in the early 90s? By the time Goldie made Saturnz Return he was getting interviewed in that bastion of youth rebellion Q magazine.
So OFWGKTA are both snotty and rebellious, and making concept albums. Tyler talks in interviews about making this stuff because he felt like the music he was being fed and that circulated around him was shit and he knew he was better than that. Those Analogue System kids reacted against what they saw in the mainstream – monolithic inflexible narratives that didn’t include them, and created their events – messy, angry, sharp and often incoherent. Tyler is just as equally reacting to his own environment – incoherent, messy internet culture, bloated meaningless rhymes from rap megastars – finding it lacking and wanting to correct it. So here you get the concept album cross bred with internet culture, supercharged with profanity, violence and sneering irony and ultimately remodelled into a elaborate “fuck-you old man”. It’s the form boredom takes when you’re smart, and literate about narrative and signification in the way that only kids raised on a total bombardment of films and cultural product are. And it’s not just a case of isolated pools of resistance ignored by almost everybody – Odd Future attract a huge cult following among kids their own age as well as old bastards like me (and let’s face it, you). It’s weird and unexpected, but so was every youth movement in history. But crucially, it suggests that far from attention and identification being dissipated there’s still a concentrated desire for this stuff – a desire from those under 25s Reynolds worries about for narrative and for something authentically of their own generation to identify with.
Now admittedly, Tyler is not your average 20 year old bedroom producer, he’s insanely ambitious, and pretty intelligent at the same time as he’s naïve and arrogant. But since when were the event records, or the groups that attracted the almost tribal devotion, that Reynolds laments the loss, of ever average or unambitious? Since we’re on the subject, since when were most records coherent? Just as there was always dissipative energy under the Analogue System, so were most of the albums it produced lacking in coherence. The format, like most things in commercial culture, was a matter of economic and manufacturing pragmatism – disc sizes became more or less standardized, certain formats could be sold for a certain amount of money. Most musicians and groups have filled up the space available with tracks – either 30-40 mins worth on vinyl or 60-90 when cds came along – and released the results. It’s not such a surprise that released from the album format by mp3 these musicians simply moved to releasing piecemeal. And it shouldn’t be a surprise either that, some are now specifically choosing the album for the different means of expression it offers, one at odds with the values of the mainstream. Reynolds might be right that there will be more one-off tracks and mixes, less albums. But that’s not to say that we’re witnessing the death of the coherent album, perhaps merely the decline of the incoherent album.