Monday, April 07, 2014

Is There Something Wrong With These Songs? Maybe There's Something Wrong With the Audience

Ben Jeffery:

Reynolds is not the only one to have connected the dearth of innovation in pop with its “disintensification.” In a piece for n+1 reviewing the first fifteen years of the music website Pitchfork, Richard Beck equated the immobility of contemporary independent rock with its decline into an arena of complacent, cultural-capital driven fashions—a judgment that clearly echoes Reynolds’s worries about underground music becoming a form of niche consumerism. Both arguments seem to interpret the lack of artistic evolution as a sign of impotence, specifically pop’s powerlessness to effect change on the social or political level. The belief that music could invade—and remake—all things public and private is part of the primordial myth of rock. Since at least the Sixties, new art held out the promise of a new life, and reinvention on the personal level could be revolution on the social.

...From this angle, what retromania heralds isn’t the death of pop as an area of creativity, but the demise of a certain type of (political) possibility. Genres of music that were once outlets for waves of discontented energy have been subdued and subsumed into the consumerist hegemony—rock, punk, hip-hop and the rest turned into competing leisure options rather than activities with any subversive potential. In the absence of new styles to take their place, pop petrifies as a social force.

There are too many excellent parts to excerpt them all. Through the lens of popular music, Jeffery addresses the same theme I was just talking about in a political context: what sort of cultural imagination do we have anymore? Does anyone believe in teleological progression, in radical change, or was that just the result of a peculiar, narrow window in human history that has now begun to dim and close? Popular music, like culture itself, seems content to just tweak what already exists, unable to imagine any shocking innovations. The thought of such cyclical stasis is unsettling to us, having already accustomed ourselves to the post-Enlightenment sense of being the masters of our own destiny, but that doesn't mean it couldn't be the case.