Trainspotting is one of the few films that I’ve bothered to watch twice at the cinema because I enjoyed it so much. It’s a great film. So much so that everyone seems to forgive the surreal sequence tucked away in the middle that could be straight out of a “GREAT Britain” marketing campaign. You may have forgotten it (or removed it from your memory). It’s a series of short clips of people in Edinburgh, set to music. It may only last 30 seconds or so. It’s to set the context (as far as I can remember) for the scene in which Begbie mugs the American tourist after he stumbles into the wrong bar and opens his mouth in a loud sports jacket. Perhaps it’s ironic – showing the difference between tourist Edinburgh and the grim toilet-bowl reality experienced by Renton and co. But if it is, then there is no shred of irony whatsoever in the sequence: it really could be straight from an advert.
And 20 or so years later, Trainspotting has probably done its own fair share of contributing to Britain’s “image” – the reputation, the imagery, the modern mythology, the material for posters and the milieu that Lonely Planet writers and newspaper travel columnists get invited to feature. That sounds like a more interesting irony – that the ironic “Visit Britain” sequence turns out to have been far more effective at attracting visitors than shit-stained toilets, dead babies and heroin addicts were at putting them off.
This “soft power” explains the rush for selfies in front of the Hollywood sign, and the clamour from politicians for new concert venues or to attract the cameras for the next Game of Thrones. The steps before – the market research, the visioning, the planning for the infrastructure and attracting the finance, is called “boosterism” – bigging up London more than Paris to win the right to host the Olympic games, for example. Boosterism is almost the opposite of market forces: investors and capitalists are meant to interpret signals to make predictions, from which they take risks and then reap the rewards of success. But where there is no data, they’re vulnerable to boosterism – also known as bullshit.
Some of the biggest boosters were in Soviet Russia, or modern-day China. It’s not simply a Capitalism con. And the boosters appear everywhere: the BBC runs the New Generation Artists scheme, supporting talented young musicians from across the world. One of those previous artists is the Iranian harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani – and I listened to a radio programme where he discusses the different musical traditions between Armenia (European-influenced) and Iran (not European-influenced), formed by the creation of a new border in 1828.
It made sense – Armenians looked towards Russia and possibly France for their cultural influences. Or rather bourgeois Armenians with pretentions at government positions, university educations and emigration. I’m sure there are bourgeois Iranians with the same pretentions but maybe not so many. Or they were persecuted or fled.
Ostensibly the programme was a contrast between disparate musical styles between neighbouring countries. So why did it feel as if Iran’s lukewarm interest in classical music was as a problem?
I blogged previously about the effect that the drive for unit sales atomises us into thinking our personal relationship to music is unique and special, when in reality it is entirely commonplace. But if something is commonplace, why bother spending money on it? Similarly, the need for selling tickets for big-name soloists or conductors, such as Esfahani, drives the format. Form follows function, after all.
Music that takes a communal and improvisational form can’t be easily sold. It’s music to dance to, to celebrate to, to pray to. The “artist”, the auteur, the composer are all irrelevant: or rather, they’re simply the performers, who in turn are the audience. Maybe that’s what the problem for Esfahani to solve was – exploring a new frontier for cultural imperialists to exploit.
Michael Sandel’s book What Money Can’t Buy expands this idea brilliantly: that money corrupts the way we consume things. Money is such a powerfully simple idea – translating the value of everything into currency that it’s one of the key steps of our social evolution, along with fire, story-telling, agriculture and industrialisation, as described by Yuval Noah Harari in the equally brilliant Sapiens. But it has pernicious effects – it corrupts the motives of those other fundamental parts of the human condition: namely love, birth and death.
Soft power is everywhere. It funds much of the art (through government subsidy) that apparent “progressives” and bourgeoisie love to enjoy (and to display their enjoyment loudly on social media) in their attempt to escape the gravitational pull of the proletariat. In turn, our need to belong to tribes and movements fuels that the velocity. Maybe being truly progressive means we admit our snobbery, and put down our wallets when professing our love of culture.