Music is over-rated

When I was in my early teens it seemed like only me and two similarly awkward friends liked The Cure.  Forever dismissed as “goths” and derided simply for the size of their hair and apparent miserablism of Robert Smith’s lyrics, we knew that they were far more than just a band.  In the early 90s, roundabout the time I saw a packed stadium concert for their Wish album, I realised their influence was becoming more and more apparent: not only musically and lyrically, but how expressing emotions like love, anger and fear in metres usually associated with hyperbole and cliché could be carried off reverentially and imaginatively.  Now the unique sound and imagery of Robert Smith’s (and Simon Gallup’s) oeuvre are widely recognised – NME, Brit Awards and the rest of them have given out their gongs of belated “lifetime achievement” approval.  What does this journey from freakshow to main attraction mean?

I used to think I alone experienced the rapture of the opening drones of Plainsong, or could hear the music between the layers of instrumentation in Lament; Simon Gallup’s pulsing basslines seemed to be singularly tailored to reverberate in my gut – and the relentless monotony of Boris Williams’s drums on Disintegration (and that’s a live recording – the man is a human drum machine!) seemed to make only my spine tingle.  I spoke to more and more people over the years: I discovered that other people could hear those ghost notes, interpreted Smith’s whispers and croaks the same way, and who had more than one tear in their eyes at the end of Faith.  Now, some 30 years later I realise that this ability of music to really move us – and to which we relate our most fundamental experiences – is universal.  It’s not me that has superhuman sensitivities, nor The Cure’s music that’s anything particularly unique.  We all seek emotional earthquakes: Christian suburbanites, graduates, teenage dirtbags and pin stripe suits together.

Which sets the scene for my thoughts about Sebastian Faulk’s book Another Life.  It’s one of five loosely connected chapters, about a folk musician in North America from the late 60s to late 90s.  Her talent is supposedly singular, her audience grows from tiny folk gigs to sell-out crowds after her discovery by the narrator and his co-producer.  The narrator’s engagement with her music is tied up of course in his attraction to her (and of course, she’s beautiful), and vice versa.  “We love you”, cry the audience at her farewell gig (much like the lovestruck cries of “ROBERRRRRRT” from the young women on every single live recording of The Cure).  But talent, and this entwining of soul and song, are not singular and rare, and neither should they be – we trick ourselves into thinking we alone are sufficiently sensitive to hear those hidden notes (spoiler: they don’t actually exist).  Music is universal; the solidarity we feel when singing our lungs out on football terraces is very real and powerful stuff.

Why this rarefication of what should be a universalising force for human solidarity?  Money changes everything, of course.  Unit sales, mainly: tickets, downloads, merch, followers and clicks.  But more than that: our drive for narrative with heroes rather than faceless armies (cf. Kahneman and Taleb, if you don’t believe me).  Smith and Gallup are certainly two of my heroes – but I’m sure even their egos acknowledge the effort of countless engineers, producers, marketers and roadies in their success.  Music going mainstream isn’t redeeming more souls: it’s making more money.

The power of ideas to take hold of collective consciousness rests in no small part upon their novelty, and the networks of their proponents, as well as their utility.  In art, what part does ability play?  Music conservatoires produce dozens of supremely gifted musicians each year, but which of them has the X Factor? There seems little correlation with ability.  Difference from what went before, and the creation of a narrative that can shift units seem to have a far more significant role.  Is there that much difference between the romanticism of, say, Lord Byron’s poetry, and The Figurehead?

I’m not saying talent doesn’t exist.  There’s a definite arc in The Cure’s output from 1978, dropping off sharply after 1991 when Smith and Gallup hit their mid 30s – the same can be said of athletes and mathematicians.  Creativity is exhausting, and those rare talents usually have stories that explain their early hunger: once success sates them, the creativity seems to dry up along with it.  Once we’ve been through the trauma of love and loss, who wants to go through all that again without taking out some form of insurance?  I’m not trying to explain why some artists make it to the bigtime.  I’m simply saying that music is over-rated.  We are not alone in our solitary prayers to the heroes of popular culture – how else are they popular?  Rather we should stop the hero reverence and give each other more credit in our ability to relate to each other, and to simple cultural pleasures – which is all music (and art, and drama, and stories) is.  The difference is that the need to sell tickets and books has reduced the universalities of culture to individual transactions.  Sing out loud, and sing together instead.

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“Cause the world needs more lawyers”

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Image: Summit Entertainment 2016

Have you seen La La Land?  I found it profound.  It speaks about capitalism itself, and a thought experiment I’ve been trying out on friends:

Imagine an Ayn Rand-inspired world where there is no public subsidy or taxation to incentivize or disincentivize purchasing, and where employees keep 100% of their wages.  Would the resulting purchases be a complete reflection of what society valued most?  If we wanted something, we would buy it.  If we needed something, we would buy it.  If we didn’t, we wouldn’t.

What would become of art?  Museums and galleries, concert halls, theatres and opera venues would close overnight.  Those institutions are usually heavily subsidized, even despite expensive ticket prices.  We don’t value the high production costs highly enough, despite our bourgeois pretentions of sophistication.

Yet the message of La La Land is “follow your dreams”.  In response to Mia’s protestation that she should have done something useful with the last six years of life rather than chase an acting career, Sebastian tells her sarcastically, “’cause the world needs more lawyers”.  Whatever the word is for irony that isn’t ironic – fact? – Sebastian is spot on.  Actually, the world does need more lawyers, and it needs fewer actors.  Why?  Because administration to manage the complexity of protecting capital has ballooned with the concentration of wealth.

The real irony is that the very ubiquity of art and the very glibness of messages such as “follow your dreams” has cheapened it so much that it has become commonplace.  Art is free: on Spotify, on Pinterest, on YouTube and everywhere: it has been reduced to background for our conspicuous consumption.  It’s clickbait, it’s ‘send us your email address with your competition entries’.  It provides context for our purchases – I’m a goth, so I must buy these clothes and wear my hair this way, not that way.   Art is dead other than the high-end kind, which is more about capital and tax efficiency than supporting aspiring art graduates.  Published writers make far less than the minimum wage on average – “follow your dreams” is a route to starvation, and freezing on the streets.

We seem determined to ignore the ugly realities of capitalism, or turn those ugly realities into beauty, because the alternative is acceptance that Things Can Certainly Not Get Better.  From the opening dance of drivers stuck in a traffic jam, La La Land shouts capitalist realism – if only we workers opened our eyes and saw traffic jams, unemployment and poverty for what they are: failures of our democracy and of our society, of an unsustainable increase in living standards for two generations paid for by fossil fuels, colonialism and exploitation that we pretend no longer to tolerate.  We understood that workers in the Soviet Union were fed lies and propaganda, so why is it so hard to accept that Hollywood is our equivalent?  La La Land hides this message in plain sight.

 

 

 

Silent blogging, coming to a cinema near you.

What can be said at all can be said clearly, and what we cannot talk about we must pass over in silence.  – Ludwig Wittgenstein.

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I didn’t want to write anything in this blog as it’s about vanity and silence – but how does one blog about silence?

All utterance is ego: I want, I need, I think.  We speak to fill silence and awkward pauses, we speak to demark our territory as if it’s temporary aural graffiti.  We attach so much importance to utterances (“but you said!”) and yet silence is also unforgiveable.  Chat and the ability to hold an interesting conversation is considered “good value”.  Conversely, someone who turned up to a dinner party and sat there in silence would be considered rude.  As a result, it’s an endless game of non-fatal Russian roulette – condemned to speaking to avoid the rudeness of silence; condemned to be an egotist, talking about ourselves, speaking words, words, words.

Theodore Zeldin wrote a book called Conversation about the power of conversation to break down barriers, explore new territory, realize new things about ourselves.  Zeldin’s organisation has spawned “conversation dinners“.  But in my experience, most conversations are 80% talking and 20% listening from one person – in other words two people in a conversation ends up wanting to squeeze 160% talking into the available space.  We don’t do a lot of listening.

Everybody wants a record deal. Everybody wants to be naked and famous – Tricky

And everyone thinks they have something to say.  Everyone does have something to say because we’re all individualists now.  I do.  So I blog.  Can everyone read all of what everyone else has to say?  Of course not – we’re too busy saying stuff to read it.  But is any of this content useful?  There must be an immense amount of duplication at any given time, but also throughout the history of thought itself.  In other words, it’s not the content.  We just want to say something.  Say anything.  It’s an impulse, a survival instinct perhaps, against the fear of being no-one: our digital footprints become us, like a CV but with less room to blag.  If it’s not on Facebook, did it happen?  Will an agent stumble across this blog, or someone’s YouTube uploads or instagram photographs and offer us a lucrative advance?

No.  The likelihood of someone using the information we willingly and voluntarily disclose about ourselves to defraud us is much, much higher.  Amazon, Google, Facebook, WordPress and the rest are actively scraping content and scanning sites right now at our expense.  Vanity outdoes reason every time.

I have a sensation of what I want to say – but no utterance I manage ever comes close.  Any utterance is doomed to be a pale imitation of what I had in mind.  It takes concentration and hard work to craft and recraft words, music, painting into that original inspiration.

Are we trying to do too much, be too much?

 

 

Weddings, civil war re-enactments, anything.

20170413_085133I wrote last time about the political implications of nostalgia. Watching graduates parading through the dross of Wolverhampton with their parents after graduation reminded me of a further, related thought I’d had before: dressing up is another version of this nostalgia, another form of self-hate and escapism.

There are many situations where we dress up, if we stretch the definition of dressing up: the existence of “office wear” illustrates my point. Ann Summers shops provide the uniform for an assumption of what adventurous lovers wear. Replica football strips fulfil the broken dreams of many football fans and erstwhile clan warriors.  Smart casual shirts for men, cocktail dresses for women fulfil the dress code for “sophistication”.  They each have socially acceptable and unacceptable times and places but in essence, they’re fancy dress.

There maybe a big difference between dressing up as a royalist musketeer in a reenactment of the Battle of Edge hill, wearing a graduation gown and mortar board through the drab and empty streets of failed industrial cities, and wearing a 19th century top coat and tails down the aisle of a 14th century church in 21st century England.  But what they all have in common is anachronism: because contemporary times – where we value diversity, equality, tolerance and democracy, for example, just doesn’t have the right cut. We prefer to dress up and celebrate fashions of a time when slavery was legal and it was fine to beat children. This is the way of nostalgia: the arbitrary celebration of “the past” or “heritage” without critical judgement, whilst at the same time critically judging the present (by trying to mask or ignore it).

In a way it’s similar to the floating carrier bag scene in American Beauty. There is no beauty in a floating carrier bag, but it is a sign of desperation with the brutality of late modern capitalism that we have been reduced to finding beauty where there is none. I’m sure holocaust survivors managed to stay sane by doing the same thing.

There is little beauty in late modern capitalism.  Instead we choose to pretend there is by dressing up.

The arse end of capital.

Cities are the concentration of capital around dense networks of trade.  In very simple terms, the more frequent the transactions, the taller the buildings.  All transactions take place in physical space: digital trade will involve a customer, a supplier and many interactions in between, all with a physical presence somewhere.  “Cyberspace” is less ether, more a warehouse on motorway junction.  So alien is the concept to human minds and so rapidly has the digital economy swamped our capacity to understand it, we would rather imagine Keanu Reaves hopping across grids of blue light.

Urban density is a visible manifestation of capital.  It diminishes until it becomes peri-urban greenbelt, dog kennels, horse riding schools and sports clubs before the profits from agriculture are sufficient to justify its retention as farmland.

Capital in the 21st century loves shiny buildings, its medieval hilltop fortresses or monasteries.  Outside the edges, are the modern equivalent of the hovels of those eking out a living from the scraps – remember the monastery in the 1986 film of The Name of the Rose.  It is a concrete, glass and steel pyramid of the debt that has given us the illusion of rising living standards: capitalists in the penthouses, owning the debt of the desperate edge dwellers eager to get inside the gates far below.

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(c) Neue Constantin Film, Cristaldifilm, Les Films Ariane 

This is a typical sight in a typical city: the fortress where capital is concentrated and its edge, beyond which lies dereliction: holes left fallow waiting until the potential rewards are great enough and secure enough to de-risk investment and redevelop it.  Meanwhile, the inhabitants of these edge spaces politely wait and suffer the social consequences, unaware of the parasitic nature of the debt that created the hole, and welcome its redevelopment with yet more exclusionary uses that feed their misery: more consumption and regressive sales taxes using borrowed money, the promotion of luxury and individualism, the slave-ships of offices for “knowledge workers”.

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The redeveloped New Street Station in Birmingham.  Looks eerily similar, no?
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200m away from the sparkly regeneration of New Street, it stops abruptly.