Thursday, 17 February 2011

Cash | Music | Musiconomics

According to the New York Times, the following track – and the entire chillwave genre, scene, movement, moment, whatever you wish to call it, that it represents a prominent part of – can be summarised thus: ‘Recession-era music: low-budget and danceable.’

Now, this is obviously the kind of throwaway generalisation that broadsheet newspapers love to, erm, throw away – annoying as fuck, in that it represents precisely why the word-counts afforded to music journalism (as opposed to, say, film or literature reviews) encourage dreadful, cliché-riddled practice, but hardly worth getting hot and bothered about, surely? Particularly when it was followed, a couple days later, by a short piece which actually did a pretty good job of pithily (rather than reductively) critiquing chillwave:

It’s annoyingly noncommittal music, backing droopy vocals with impersonal sounds – a hedged, hipster imitation of the pop they’re not brash enough to make.

But it does represent an interesting contemporary example of something that’s been going on in music criticism for years and years, namely a half-arsed lashing of genres, scenes, movements, moments to the political and economic circumstances in which they were conceived, born, raised. Macroeconomic circumstances, indeed – despite the utter implausibility of global recession being linked in any way to how lo-fi a single strand of western electronic music is deciding to be. I mean, one could possibly talk about the rise of bedroom production as a response to record labels having far less money to sign ‘risky’ artists and pay for lengthy residencies in professional studios, but that’s hardly the recession’s fault, it’s the internet’s if it's anybody's. ANY ANYWAY, the history of DIY music is far more about a creative chain of influence than it is financial necessity. AND ANYWAY, the roots of chillwave extend deep into the noughties, long before them Lehman Brothers tumbled. Here are a couple important examples, mid-period proponents of what Wire magazine calls ‘hypnogogic pop’:

A couple of examples of this broadsheet phenomenon, then.

Punk economics

In a 2008 article in the Independent Stephen King, the managing director of economics at HSBC, asked the question ‘are we going back to the 1970s?’ He opened the piece with an arbitrary paragraph about punk:

Then again, one of the most important musical releases of the 1970s was the Sex Pistols’ Anarchy in the UK, one of the earliest punk records. This seminal single came out towards the end of 1976. In the following year, while the Queen celebrated her Silver Jubilee, the Sex Pistols released God Save the Queen. According to Johnny Rotten and his colleagues, there was no future for people in ‘the fascist regime’ (although why Mr Rotten chose to place Jim Callaghan on a pedestal alongside Hitler and Mussolini is anybody’s guess).

Oh. So the article, entitled ‘punk economics’ acknowledges, before it’s even really begun, that any attempt to link punk to the actual economic circumstances of the 1970s, i.e. James Callaghan rather than, y'know, facism, is laughable. Why’s it called ‘punk economics’ then?

People pushed for inflationary wage increases in the 1970s not because they desired higher inflation but because they weren't sure of their real spending power in an inflationary world. In the early 1970s, the loss of confidence in price stability was a huge contributory factor behind the emergence of far greater wage pressures.

It is, therefore, vital that the Bank of England now preserves that confidence because, without it, we'll end up singing along to the Sex Pistols' greatest moment. Altogether now: ‘I am an antichrist...’

What? That’s it? What a fucking joke. I mean, obviously one can’t understand punk without understanding a sense of working class discontent that, yes, manifested in the most widespread strikes this country has ever seen (barring the Peasants’ Revolt, the Civil War etc. etc.) which, yes, had a considerable effect on how the UK functioned economically, but making punk about inflation. Nah mate.

Thatcher Thatcher music-snatcher

Again, it would be well stupid to deny that a relationship between the music of the 1980s and the atrocities of Thatcherism exists, existed. Of course it does, did. Why would music suddenly decide to become apolitical during a decade in which there was more going on in politics to be pissed off with than ever before (barring the Peasants’ Revolt, the Civil War etc. etc.)? As Jeremy Vine points out, in a fantastically ignorant article for the BBC (basically a broadsheet) Elvis Costello wrote a song about dancing on Thatcher’s grave. Vine’s fantastic ignorance gets its first airing when he starts talking about Joy Division:

I have to mention Joy Division too. They never said her name but at the time they really were The Greatest Band in the World. Their bleak, screeching soundscapes summed up the hopelessness of the post-industrial north of England.

That time being the 1980s, presumably. The whole piece takes Vine starting at Durham University in 1983 as its jumping-off point. Apparently, the dear man didn’t notice that Joy Division stopped making their ‘bleak, screeching soundscapes’ (screeching?) when their singer killed himself in 1980. Unbelievable. Just for that, Jeremy, here’s a video of you at your very, very worst, as mocked by Charlie Brooker in Newswipe:

It’s nothing compared to the following, though:

Duran Duran's most famous line: ‘Her name is Rio and she dances on the sand,’ seemed to translate as: ‘I've made a lot of cash under Thatcher and now I'm going to splash it out on a bird whose bikini is falling off.’

With their high-stacked hairstyles and flashguns bouncing off limousine bumpers, the New Romantics celebrated low taxation, enterprise and the power of the individual spirit. They were also rather silly. But possibly without meaning to, they had printed the essential values of Thatcherism on vinyl.

I love this approach to lyric interpretation. Write down lyrics. Write down a meaning for which, frankly, no evidence exists. Literally none. Use the phrase ‘seemed to translate as.’ Point proved.

Or not. And since when, whilst we’re on the subject, are Thatcherite economics ‘rather silly’? Unbelievable. Perhaps Duran Duran do represent a useful visual and sonic metaphor for certain aspects of 80s commercialism. But they weren’t formed by it. They were formed by John Taylor and Nick Rhodes in Birmingham in 1978, as the resident band at the ‘Rum Runner’ nightclub. Find the Thatcher in that.


But why bother picking fights with an economist and a broadcast journalist who, quite obviously, know shit all about music? I’ll tell you why. Because I’m sick of the way our reliance upon, and slavish devotion to ‘the market’, to market forces, means that everything, literally everything, has to be thought of in economic terms. All three of the examples I’ve drawn upon here are somewhat frivolous, but that doesn’t mean they are not representative of a paradigm, increasingly prevalent, that sees culture as subsumed utterly within the capitalist markets handily summarised here by Lord Snooty himself:

Newsnight (17/09/08)

J. Paxman: When you see institutions short selling stocks and thereby aggravating the crisis, what do you feel?

G. Osborne: Well look no one takes pleasure from people making money out of the misery of others but that is a function of capitalist markets, the real issues is what is the causes of this problem, not what are the symptoms of the problem …

P: I didn’t ask you what the causes were, I asked you what you felt when you saw institutions short-selling and thereby aggravating an already serious crisis, is it acceptable or not?

O: Well I just said at the very beginning of my answer to you that it is not pleasant to watch people making loads of money out of the misery of others but ..

P: Is it acceptable?

O: That is a function of financial markets.

Subsumed in a way that means art isn’t autonomous anymore. That it is a product of economic situations (out of control of itself, like Vine’s Duran Duran, ‘without meaning to’) rather than a response. And that therefore, we might as well accept that music has to utilise the arbitrary injustices of market forces, rather than rally against them, lyrically, aesthetically. That, to me, is the subtext in a statement like ‘chillwave is recession-era music.’ Which is why it’s a sentence that optimists who like me believe in the potential for, and existence of, a genuine counter-culture have a responsibility to oppose, rather than simply get irritated by.

Sam Kinchin-Smith
Music Editor

1 comment:

  1. Clearly the best musical answer to the financial crisis is Nate Dogg and Warren G's 'Regulate'.

    REGULATORS! Mount up.