Prelude – One Hipster’s Story
In my final year at college I helped start a music magazine that briefly went nationwide. For a little while we covered a brutally hip range of ‘indie’ and electronica acts: Interviewing, smooching, listening to a lot of great new music and occasionally finding time to publish some decent writing.
Then, about a year ago, exactly twelve months after we’d started the magazine, and just before the release of our sixth issue and third nationwide release, trouble hit paradise like a leaky tanker with a drunken captain. After a dip in my involvement while I finished my undergraduate thesis, I’d developed three features for the magazine- one of which was the piece below, a tongue in cheek consideration of what makes music good.
A couple of weeks before we were due to go to print I received an ominous email from the editor… My ‘Pop Music Sucks’ article, though ‘there is an irony involved in the way you’ve written it’ was ‘overtly arrogant and pretentious’, and worse the magazine was not ‘established enough to print such a strongly worded discussion between two writers in disagreement’. It felt like the doe eyed puppy I’d lovingly raised had chewed my face off while I slept. The eighty thousand words of features, blog posts, and interviews I’d written for the magazine were as nothing, the numerous pieces I’d worked on as assistant editor, the friendships and collaboration which had seemed to lie at the heart of the project didn’t matter- there was to be no discussion as ‘my decision as Editor… is final.’ It was just another piece getting rejected from a magazine, just another power play that mattered not a whit, but to me it was my whole world falling down. We’d recently begun producing a national radio show spin off, and I’d written and co-presented one episode, and produced and recorded two. I could see some sort of future as a professional writer folded up and put in a pocket, a childish fancy.
The magazine carried on for another couple of issues, before the advertising blood bath got the better of it. For a long time I stopped listening to music. Eventually I cancelled my pity party and decided to be even more of an obstreperous little shit than before. From now on I’d only put my creative effort into my own projects. If I failed at them, I’d have no one else to blame. Like a chocoholic thirty something office girl whose heart has been broken one to many times, I resolved to stick to chocolate fingered masturbation.
So here’s the article, the point of which dovetailed neatly with it’s consequences. The names have been changed…
Pop Music Sucks
Two music journalists sit outside a franchise coffee house. Young, urbane and ostentatiously hip, they are arguing. Their discussion, staged in the controversial milieu of a Starbucks decorated to match the Autumnal colours of their Abercrombie togs, is about something vital. As the boy raises a Venti Caramel Frappuccino to his lips, suckling the frothy mass of corporate cream and coffee, the girl berates his immovable pretension. She nurses a tiny herbal tea and readjusts her nautically themed mini as he mocks her trivial preferences. Outside a Starbucks on the Camden Road, these tragic hips are fighting, not about the re-ignition of the cold war, nor the global financial meltdown. Our heroes, writers for a pretentious indie publication both, are arguing about authenticity in music.
A struggle rages high in the battlements of scene. On one side, popsters like Bon Dijonaise and Meadbh Glint protest that the crowd is too exclusive, an elitist misrepresentation of the interests of its core and wannabe’s; snobbishly avoiding popular music in favour of credible indie darlings. Ranged against them are folk like myself, Snedar Vashni, Tove Chumbly, you know the crowd. We see a cultural landscape supersaturated with pop coverage, radio stations payola’d and market researched into little more than store fronts for the latest Timbaland remix, the newest leather jacketed major label ‘indie’ stars, the latest on-screen Abba revival. We are, as we see it, though our individual tastes may differ radically, concerned that our independent musical presses be places original music can be discussed, seriously and frivolously.
At face value, this argument is trivial, a petty squabble among dilettantes over the etiquette of formal dining. Look a little deeper and it resonates with a crisis of cultural capital, an argument about the validity and future of Western culture itself. Last year, Adbusters magazine, a publication which hopped up on Chomsky, Baudrillard and Naomi Klein, attempts to use the glamour of industrial capitalism (fashion shoots, photoshop, ironic distance) to subvert its consumerist message, wrote a sterling attack on hipsterism. This latest global subculture, the magazine argued, represents a departure from youth movements of the past, from the hippies and the punks, a departure even from the hedonistic valueless underground raves of the 90’s, in that it is wholly constructed, marketed and cool hunted; meaning nothing, representing nothing, remixing historical motifs into ironic outfits and flickering kinetoscopes of fringe interest. Dan Hancox, writing in the Guardian, dismissed Adbusters critique. Hipsterism, Hancox wrote, is nothing more than “fashion people, doing what fashion people have always done.”
At a time when the culture is more self-conscious, more aware of its history and artifice than ever before, a crisis of confidence has descended. A variety of dichotomies; authenticity versus inauthenticity, sincerity by contrast to ironic distance, original cut into remix, taste as distinct from fashion, symptomise the implosion of the counterculture, the final digestion of a pill designed to be too difficult to swallow. In 2006, iconic lower East Side club CBGB’s closed its doors. Large men with hammers moved in, cracking away graffiti encrusted walls, where once Poly Styrene made love to the audience like a Viet Cong Millie Small. The plan was to move the place, lock stock and branded barrel to Las Vegas. Fortunately the rock gods intervened, fatally popping owner Hilly Kristal’s cash lined clogs. It seemed like any vestiges of punk, once the epitome of the rejection of sanitised, monetized pop, officially died with him.
What we now term the counter-culture arose spontaneously, a modern version of ancient processes of cultural evolution. It stands in stark contrast to the fictive mainstream tele-visual culture, constructed and marketed from watered down replications of the past. Adbusters’ argue that the desire for authenticity, prizing the real and innovative over derivative artifice, has grown so large in the contemporary capitalist dystopia that, commercialised sans radical intent, it becomes just another currency, traded for street cred by vacuous hipster fuckitalls.
Perhaps both hipsterism’s ironic recycling of pop culture, and its contradictory obsession with the underground, are really both reactions to a contradiction which has always existed at the heart of the counter-culture; the illusion of authenticity. Whether it be white academic musicologists scouring the Mississippi delta in the 1930’s for the ‘pure’ black roots of blues (and ‘discovering’ Led Belly), hippies in hemp smocks writing protest songs in a reconstructed ‘folk’ idiom, or hell contemporary gaelgoir hips ordering Guinness in a dead language in Dublin’s Conradh, what we assume to be authentic is most often deliberately constructed to serve a social function.
If hipsterism is no less organic than the most cynically moulded Louis Walsh pop hit, then why regard it as intrinsically better?
Authenticity, in relation to music, is often used synonymously with sincerity, and it is in this sense (according to Webster’s “true to one’s own personality, spirit, or character”) that pop music can never be considered authentic. As a medium of mimicry, chart music has no intrinsic character beyond stylist buffed billboard illusion. At the same time, whether fusion (think Simon Bookish), remix (Pittsburgh copyfighter Girl Talk) or revival (Appalachian flavoured indie darling Joanna Newsom), ‘independent’ music is by definition sincere – no matter how commodified.
This distinction is epitomised in the parallel careers of two of the twentieth century’s biggest stars. David Robert Jones, known to us all as David Bowie, and Madonna Louise Ciccone Ritchie, most often referred to simply as ‘the hag’. Both are multi-decade internationally platinum selling musicians, purveyors of the latest cultural trend, instantly recognisable icons whose celebrity transcends familiarity with their work. Yet it’s hard to think of two musicians more differently regarded. Bowie, despite his gradual drift into irrelevance, produced some of the most critically acclaimed contemporary hipness of the last five decades. His work as a writer, singer and producer across glam rock, new romantic, krautrock and disco, inspires some of today’s most important acts. His many and varied persona leave whole subcultures in their wake.
From one perspective there is nothing honest about David Bowie. The man’s whole shtick is illusion. His characters are mythological archetypes: Nietzschean supermen, imaginary rock stars, mimes and white bluesmen. Yet it would be impossible to term Bowie inauthentic. Whether manifesting the destiny of a doomed rocker or a cocaine fuelled fascist, Bowie was ever the artist, producing rich, often accessible but consistently multi-layered work which sprang from his interests in literature, the occult and history; his explorations of persona, of celebrity, of sanity, rather than a slavish addiction to prevailing tastes or market research.
In stark contrast, witness Madonna. Similarly commercially successful, possibly even more famous, she is an iconic personification of liberated libidinous femininity. Madonna too has explored varied musical styles and riffed lyrically and through her cinematic roles on her own iconic status. Madonna like Bowie, has collaborated with a host of musicians and producers, from Timbaland to William Orbit. However, while both artists have produced commercially successful anthems, Bowie’s music is considered hip, while critical opinion of Madonna’s oeuvre has at best lauded her inarguable cultural significant, and at worse labelled her a crass slag.
What distinguishes these two musicians? In part, it’s the machine. Madonna’s talent has never been music, but rather the ability to affix herself to the mast of the good ship pop, pitching this way and that to catch the gusts of fashionista taste. By contrast, Bowie has often worked closer to the coal seam, whether it be the cutting edge of glitter rock, Berlin minimalism or electronica. While never creating a wholly original genre, his four decades of boundless creative energy produced celebrated work in a multiplicity of voices. Bowie’s hip was always artificial- up till 2003’s Reality LP, characters and narratives were not intended as literal representations of his personality. Yet his art remained authentic, because it was so rarely insincere.
There are two primary meta-theories of artistic interpretation. To the social constructionist, taste is encultured (and thus entirely relative); by contrast the evolutionary perspective, while acknowledging a multiplicity of preferences, posits that taste (and hence critical evaluation) is at least in part routed in innate critical faculties, adaptive human universals. To the relativist, the only value of a work of art is its situation in the contextual system of the western canon. By contrast, if we acknowledge that it is not merely our physiology, but our neurophysiology that we inherit, that commonalities of cognitive function facilitate mutual comprehension (including the acquisition of language and yes music); then one work of art can be viewed as objectively better than another. One artist can be accurately be described as a genius, another a fraud. Bowie’s music managed to articulate the fears and hopes of two generations, while Madonna’s is consumed as chewing gum. Sweet, disposable and yet grotesquely indelible chewing gum.
For this is the function of pop music, the very reason behind its omnipresence. Pop is the aural representation of a culture that celebrates banality in the guise of ingenuity, conformity disguised as individualism, and the accrual of wealth as talent. ‘Pop music’, chart music, is by definition that which is neither necessarily good nor original, but merely purchased often. Setting aside the rigged and managed measurement of sales; the implicit assumption of the whole game is that which sells most is best. At least until next week. Perhaps this is the reason for hipsterism’s clichés, its thrift store fashions, its ironic distance and blog-inspired fixations. The desire to seek out quality despite commerce, to approve through consumption only briefly, to move on before such approval is appropriated, nullified and codified in next seasons diesel jeans, in Holy Fuck’s new remix.
As I sip my iced coffee, I tell Meadbh of my visceral reaction to pop, to vocodered power ballads and over-produced country songs, to saccharine R&B and big-me-up hiphop. It’s the same instant headache, the sulphur burp twinge you feel seeing a spandex micro mini or a concrete underpass – functional mass production minus aesthetic considerations. It isn’t elitism, it’s taste. Thankfully Andreas Pavel invented the stereobelt (though the Sony Corporation stole the idea, rechristening it the Walkman), making it possible to travel on public transfort, enter a clothing store or shopping mall, or pick up a cinema ticket without collapsing into a speaker-vandalising, Duffy-assassinating rage. That’s the problem with pop, it fills every crevice with at best inane, and at worst perversely nonsensical lyrics, and tired vaudevillian melodies. Pop bursts, over-compressed and without warning, from taxis, hospital lobbies and the leaky headsets of the perpetually bewildered. It seeps and jangles, depositing earworms like September flu. Hits that chew through your brain and leave you jibbering for days.
There are inarguably exceptions. Popular songs that are none the less classics, indie classics that are, despite all the odds, popular. These are diamonds in the dustbin, poppies in the sewage pipe. Almost universally, pop music acts to dull the sensibilities and nullify the critical faculties, lulling the listener into temporary senility. Its message is equipotency, uniformity, apoliticism, hypersexualised infantilism, and the illusion of choice. That’s the whole point. Pop music is designed to appear controversial, whilst saying nothing truly dangerous. It’s not merely bad, it’s insidious. Who will Britney kiss next? Which part of Janet Jackson’s greased up anatomy will slip ‘accidentally’ into the public eye? When will the Bay City Rollers reform? Who the fuck cares? Pop music sucks.