Is postmodernism postmodern? It has a difficult trick to pull off. According to Georgina Born and David Hesmondhalgh, postmodernism centres on the idea that ‘the old divisions between high and low, art and popular culture, the “autonomous” and the commercial in culture, are now redundant and superseded’’. But postmodernism can surely only achieve this by bearing in mind concepts of ‘high’ and ‘low’, ‘art’ and ‘popular’, the ‘autonomous’ and the ‘commercial’. It is a philosophy that is too self-conscious to achieve its own ends.
On top of that, it is a philosophy that begins with the ‘high’ looking down on the ‘low’, and with the art world choosing to incorporate the commercial. It is also one that regards popular music as being one of the forms grazing somewhere near the bottom.
Popular music has nevertheless been used as evidence that there is a postmodern condition. In the 1970s and 1980s theorists witnessed the music’s growing eclecticism and its rampant inter-textuality. It was mixing things up just as postmodernism should.
Those theorists got carried away. As Andrew Goodwin has pointed out, many of the popular music artists who mixed high and low were aiming upwards, rather than trying to make cultural divisions redundant. Here he cites both the prog rock acts of the early 1970s and the post-punk artists who succeeded them, arguing that they ‘marked themselves out from the field of “pop” in rejection of the structural form of the pop song, their use of complex, dissonant forms of tonality, and in the absence of lyrical themes centred on romance, escape or “the street”’. He points out that many of these acts were either unpopular or held the rest of popular music in contempt. Thus their outlook could more rightly be viewed as being modernist, rather than its post.
Goodwin was writing in 1988. In 2013 there is another factor to consider. Although there continues to be much distinction within popular music, the music is now more regularly viewed as being of cultural worth: it is endorsed by ‘higher’ authorities (much to its discredit, some would say). This can be witnessed in the fact that politicians are compelled to have a knowledge of the latest pop music trends (Gordon Brown on the Arctic Monkeys; Tom Watson on Drenge). It was also in evidence at the London Olympics. The opening and closing ceremonies paid homage to British popular music, while saving their moments of pastiche for longer-established artistic forms. In addition, there has been a coming together of the popular and the classical: pop has learnt from classical music’s funding models; classical has borrowed from pop’s marketing techniques. More broadly, there is evidence of pop sitting comfortably at the cultural table. In 2009 The Times obituary of J.G. Ballard contextualised the author by means of his influence on Joy Division and Radiohead; in 1989 Kate Bush was denied permission to use text from James Joyce’s Ulysses in ‘The Sensual World’, in 2011 permission was granted; Lady Gaga’s wrist tattoo is a quotation from Rainer Maria Rilke, and she is now working with the artists Marina Abramovic, Robert Wilson and Jeff Koons.
All of this barely makes an eyelid flutter, let alone a butterfly flap its wings. Many divisions have been superseded. But does this mean we’re all postmodern now or that postmodernism is passé?