Dissonant Notes

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Manufacturing Dissent: Conformity as Rebellion

"Only the man who says 'no' is free"

Herman Melville

"If you want to serve the age, betray it"

Brendan Kennelly

As far as legendary moments in the history of popular music go, what happened at Manchester Free Trade Hall in May '66 is one that still reverberates, in part because it really happened. The subject of many an article and music discussion, the actions of John Cordwell have created more mileage for the Dylan myth-making machine than any other event, other than perhaps the supposed motorcycle crash which sent him into retreat a mere two months later. John Cordwell was one of the many youths of the early '60's who felt an almost religious reverence for the work of Bob Dylan, particularly those early protest anthems that seemed to speak an unquestionable truth, a folk-spun wisdom that nevertheless blazed with a righteous indignation more befitting a preacher than a popular music singer. Put simply, Dylan's songs emitted an ethical charge that hypnotised his fans, providing for them intellectual nourishment amid a climate of what they saw as compromised ideals and commercialised jingles. When Dylan went electric and moved the focus of his lyrics away from indignation and towards a poetic, at times impenetrable, exploration of personal emotions, many felt betrayed. So it was that in Manchester John Cordwell stood up in a quiet moment between songs and yelled out "Judas". Dylan, master of cool and seemingly unflappable, blurts out "I don't believe you". He is then stunned into silence, managing only to retort "You're a liar" before launching into his next song. History has judged Dylan the victor and Cordwell to be just another woolly-jumpered folk fanatic whose desperate moment of protest was merely the whimpering of a man caught on the wrong side of popular culture's great earthquake. Stranded and confused, his shout is instructive now merely as an example of a certain closed-minded resistance to change. We shake our heads in disbelief, knowing that we would have accepted Dylan's artistic changes with a mixture of excitement and expectation, ever eager to embrace the new. Is there a price to pay, though, for this spirit of acceptance that pervades our times? I think so, and I intend to explain just what that is.

A recent phenomenon designed to cash in on the hardcore music fan's rabid curiosity for anything related to an artist or album they like is the "Under Review" DVD. Supposed experts, and the occasional person connected with events being described, talk at length about what they know and before long an hour of your time has been filled up. Needless to say I've watched many of them. While browsing in the music section of my local DVD rental establishment I happened upon an "Under Review" entitled "The Berlin Trilogy". Unable to help myself I took it home and settled in for some uninterrupted Bowie jibber-jabber. One of the things that caught my attention was that the various talking heads vying for screen time all seemed to want to talk about the critical reaction to "Low"-- contemporary reviewers were confused, some going so far as to call it unlistenable. Amongst the various opinions contained on this particular "Under Review" one could hear a certain smugness rising up to the surface, an air of "Look how wrong those critics were. They weren't ready for 'Low' and now they look stupid cos they gave it a bad review". If modern times has a commandment, it is surely "Though shalt embrace everything new, lest ye look foolish and obsolete in retrospect". No judgment is more scornful than the one heaped upon the fearful artistic conservative. From Impressionism's disdain for the Académie to hip-hop's challenge to rock, one's credibility is measured historically in terms of how early and how strongly one embraced these changes. Artists are the fearless pioneers of our times, visionary geniuses whose works may only be appreciated by the most open of minds, the most subtle and complex of thinkers. The red carpet is forever laid out, and any failure to understand a new artistic development is our fault, never theirs. With each aesthetic victory, however, the ranks of the supposed enemy grows thinner, the result being that oftentimes there is no conservative stodginess standing in the way of mass acceptance. When this happens, reviewers create a phantom to pit their open-minded approach against.

The release of "Kid A" by Radiohead is perhaps the greatest example of the phantom conservative music fan. Almost every review was glowing, and the album went to number one on both sides of the Atlantic. Scan through the reviews, though, and you'll see many critics referring to the album as "challenging" and "difficult". So an album that is embraced wholeheartedly by critics and public alike is both challenging and difficult? For whom exactly? It seems like the critics were reviewing themselves, not the album, and giving themselves five stars. Was the album challenging for them? Clearly not as they were keen to declare it a masterpiece in a very short space of time. No, what was being indicated was that the album would be a difficult listen for other people, you know, those phantom conservative listeners. The critics got it, boy did they get it, but those people would not. What followed was the biggest critical and public display of self-initiated backslapping imaginable. "Radiohead are challenging, they are before their time, they are miles ahead of every other band and you know what? I get it". In truth there was the occasional bad review, Nick Hornby's springs to mind, but taken overall the album could not have been better received. Apparently the world at large had been challenged by "Kid A" and had boldly passed the test. These critics were no stick-in-the-mud classicists, no sir. They were ready for the future and all the weird electronic dissonance that came with it.

What happened between the cry of "Judas" and "Kid A"? A lot, the main thing being that Pop Culture went from being an exhilarating celebration of the new to a gargantuan edifice of such size, scope and influence that it is all-pervasive and all-encompassing in its reach. For some reason, though, it has retained its status as untouchable among many. Try criticising the state of the music charts these days and before you know it you're an old grandfather looking for his pipe and slippers. Embracing the new has become passive acceptance of whatever direction popular music has taken. When punk drew fresh battle lines the new enemy was the classic rock fan, clutching in fear their copy of "Music From Big Pink" and scowling at all these noisy bands. Electronic music was embraced knowing full well that many rock fans were cursing its supposed soullessness and longing for a return to proper musicianship. What's changed since then? Not much really. From post-punk to synth-pop to hip-hop to dance all new sounds have been embraced by the alternative press and in a larger sense the public too. Since the early '90's, though, nothing truly revolutionary has occurred. By the time of Kurt Cobain's death and the transformation of Oasis from indie darlings to world conquering rock stars the alternative press had all but died. Dwindling circulation meant even left-of-centre publications had to follow the money. Major label pressure and demands from the marketplace overtly influenced what acts should be covered and in what manner, meaning that dissenting voices became thin on the ground (Lack of favourable coverage for a prized major label act often meant denial of press access to all of that label's acts, a situation that would all but destroy a magazine seeking high circulation and heavy advertising revenue). Soon enough, all that's left are those writers willing to toe the line but who deep down don't feel like they are selling-out. If these same writers can convince themselves that by embracing mainstream music they are actually rebelling then it can help quieten the uneasiness of being compromised. Given this predicament, the writer who can show the inherent danger (or lack of ambition) resulting from a narrow-minded indie outlook can recast their championing of the mainstream as both an act of open-minded heroism and a display of tough-minded realism. Meanwhile all that remains of the so-called alternative press is mostly stuck in an early '80's mindset, championing some indie acts but also aggressively pushing the idea that to complain about the standards of mainstream music is to throw your lot in with the classic rock fans snapping up the latest issue of "Mojo". In other words, to rebel against the mainstream is an act of almost unforgivable ignorance.

For this reason, we get the phantom "Kid A" detractors. Reviewers got a chance at last to show that they weren't stuck in classic rock mode but were actually on the cutting edge. The bigger question is, what do artists themselves have to kick back against? Creative spirits often need a challenge, an enemy, a direction that could ruffle some feathers. The nature of modern music criticism is such that almost any direction taken by an artist, barring a stab at classic rock, is viewed in the most sympathetic light possible, especially among newer artists. As if haunted by the idea of another "Low"-like episode, reviewers are at pains not to appear behind the times. What could be more embarrassing, after all, than being wrong about some new and important development in music? So fear is, at heart, one of the main drives behind bland acceptance and self-congratulatory open-mindedness. Ask yourself this, though; when was the last time there was any real controversy in music? Keep in mind music critics for the most part reacted to the upsurge in misogyny and homophobia among hip-hop artists in the '90's with what can only be described as moral cowardice. The controversy raged outside of the pages of the music press, who merely reported on the controversy. When was the last time somebody did something that would have merited the cry of "Judas"? To be honest, it's hard to think of anything that could incite real anger amongst devotees. We have become passive consumers rather than passionate fans, admiring our own eclecticism and open-mindedness about music rather than our engagement with the art (Or is it merely entertainment? We'll save that for another time). The focus is on what the music says about you, not to you. We are encouraged to approach pop culture like rapacious neoliberals, forever worshiping technological developments and congratulating artists for savvy media manipulation. The world is flat and we gaze transfixed at the shimmering surface, exhilarated to catch sight of our own reflection amid the varnished sheen. We feel modern. We belong. The end result is that musicians have almost nothing to rebel against. Fans are accepting of everything, with bands more than aware of their market and as such making all the necessary noises and dropping the right names. Fans then feel part of a rebellious continuum that marks them out as the cultural pioneers pushing things forward. Culture trundles on regardless as marketing strategies pinpoint our innermost needs and deliver them to our in-box. In the meantime nobody notices that nothing very interesting has gone on for years, and the post-punk stratagem of a bold leap for the mainstream is still the ultimate act of rebellion.

So what is the price we pay for passivity? The death of the critical voice. It has become the unwanted guest at every dinner table, the devil to be exorcised so that we may find our place in the world without apprehension. At the same time, nobody feels comfortable with the idea of conformity. So the critical voice that finds fault with new popular music developments becomes the surrogate John Cordwell, yelling at things they cannot accept, not knowing that these very same things represent the future and that soon their anguish will be viewed as a laughable moth-eaten vision of times gone by. Placed in opposition to such future fear, the conformist becomes the rebel casting off the shackles of an unwanted past, forever ready to embrace the challenges of a technologically dominated global culture. All morals, tastes and scruples must be committed to the flames lest we appear unready. We must be pliable, and we must be forever vigilant against the critical voice that tells us that we are being short-changed by the march of culture. In other words we must be the very model of the modern neoliberal. The contradiction that lies at the heart of such a reality, though, is that the very same cultural commentators that fit the above description to a tee believe themselves to be the opposite of the neoliberal. Instead they picture themselves as post-modern leftists laying bare the dark heart of globalism's cultural colonialism. That they choose to do battle with globalism's grim march by embracing all of popular culture's latest output is akin to fighting global warming by snapping up the biggest gas guzzling SUV imaginable (Perhaps to problematise the issue? To embrace the inconsistencies inherent in the modern dialectic? To have their cake and eat it too?). Members of the "alternative press" continuously push mainstream success as an artistic ideal, with the all-powerful Pitchfork recently beginning a review with the observation "The people making the best pop music in the world are typically also among the world's biggest pop stars". That Pitchfork itself is, philosophically speaking, a slapdash copy and paste of the British alternative press of 1982 that championed New Pop has apparently gone completely unnoticed. Though secondhand, the principles favoured by Pitchfork promote the unarguable idea that to embrace mainstream pop is a revolutionary accomplishment.

Meanwhile on the other side of history remains John Cordwell. That he was wrong about Dylan's direction is perhaps now beside the point. In the larger sense he showed extreme tenacity in challenging counter-culture's poet god, and the fact that two months later Dylan crashed out of life altogether and only returned to the music scene in '68 with an almost all acoustic album awash in Biblical allegory suggests that perhaps Cordwell had a bigger impact than even he imagined. Artists demand to be challenged, and we do them a disservice by meekly fawning over each new creation. On the other side of the coin, artists do society a disservice by not laying bare the darkest secrets of the age. If our future is dancing to popular culture's puppet strings and Art a mere pretentious memory of older times then I fear for notions of individuality and humanity. The corrosive nature of the ironic persona has already allowed multitudes of substandard products to be embraced, treasured and even intellectualised. Our willingness to appear gleefully unperturbed plays in perfectly with the idea that to be overtly critical or unhappy with any turn of events is the ultimate communal buzz-kill and sign of an individuals impending obsolescence. Step outside of this mindset, however, and it's possible to see that there are worse things than being wrong. Going all the way back to Art's first modern rebellion, the painters herded into the category of Impressionist's tended, for the most part, to view each others works with disdain. Not to say that there was not some admiration, but there was certainly no all-for-one stand against the establishment. No, each in their own way was wrong about history's forward trajectory, but right in their own exploration of individual technique. Scan through all revolutionary artistic periods and you'll find the same sniping and backbiting, the same jealous denouncements. What saved each in turn was their willingness to take a stand. So it's easy to see that there is indeed something worse than being wrong, and that is being spineless. John Cordwell could hardly be accused of cowardice in the face of an overpowering cultural movement. Who amongst us could say the same?

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