One of the most shameful records that I own is ‘Fuck a Mod’ by the Exploited. ‘Kick him in the head/Beat him in the balls/Jump up on his head/How much fun it is to fuck a mod until he’s dead’. That’s how it goes, sung to the tune of ‘Jingle Bells’.
Why bring this up? Well, mostly to grab attention about pop modernism. That’s modernism as in the high art theory: the belief that art should progress; that it should experiment with form; that new technologies should be embraced. As such, the mod revival that the Exploited are singing about is about as far from modernism as it’s possible to be. What pop modernists have in common with mod revivalists, though, is a sense that they are being fucked over.
At least that’s what Simon Reynolds thinks. The real reason for his pessimism in Retromania is that he feels pop’s modernist spirit has died. How can this be? There are those who argue that there’s no such thing as modernism in popular music. In the first instance, the term modernism should be applied to a period of artistic endeavour that took place prior to the second world war; popular music, in contrast, didn’t really get going until the rock ‘n’ roll revolution of the mid-1950s. Secondly, modernism is elitist in nature, it shunned the opinions of the general public; popular music, in contrast, is popular.
And yet I think Simon Reynolds is right. A modernist tendency has been at large within popular music. The Beatles have much to answer for here. Despite their overwhelming popularity, the second half of their career was essentially modernist in nature: they turned their backs on the public, choosing studio work over live performance; they were pioneers of new technology; they explored the parameters of the pop form. Those who lived through the punk era, which was as much about ‘no past’ as it was about ‘no future’, or the house music movement, which provided the ultimate example of stretching pop’s form to match its function, will also have been touched by the modernist spirit.
Reynolds goes further. He argues that, out of all art forms, ‘pop music could be said to have held out against the onset of postmodernism the longest’. As evidence he cites ‘vanguards like hip hop and rave’ and ‘isolated modernist hero figures within rock or pop itself’. I think there’s something in this too. Postmodernism’s lack of affect hasn’t sat well with pop’s libidinous drive. Conversely, the music’s canonisation is distinctly modernist in tone. Think of those ‘best albums of all time’ lists: Sgt. Pepper; Dark Side of the Moon; Innervisions; Computer World.
For me, Reynolds is on less sure ground when identifying the modernist audience. He claims that ‘chavs are Britain’s last bastion of futurist taste’, largely on the grounds that Britain's white underclass has a preference for black music, including ‘R&B and lumpen post-techno styles like donk’. I’d be reluctant to say that anyone from any class or ethnic background has a monopoly on forward-looking taste. What I would suggest, though, is that it is more likely to be those from middle-class and/or art-educated backgrounds who would filter that taste through a belief in modernism. This would include critics such as Simon Reynolds and, if I’m honest, myself. You would be able to see this in our taste for black musicians (James Brown rather than Bobby Bland; Stevie Wonder rather than Al Green; Public Enemy rather than 2Pac; Missy Elliot rather than Beyonce), as well as for middle-class artists influenced by black pioneers (Pink Floyd’s cosmic take on the blues; Radiohead’s dystopian jazz; James Blake’s austere dubstep).
There is a reason why this matters: pop modernism has wielded power. It is has been an agenda-setting taste, not just in constructing popular music’s canons, but also in encouraging certain types of artists to be signed and promoted by the media. It can be witnessed in the demand that new artists be innovative and original, and maybe even difficult. There are residual bastions of modernism amongst journalists, documentary commissioners and prize-giving panelists (hence James Blake was a shoo-in to win this year’s Mercury Music Prize). Their viewpoint is being overtaken, however, and as a consequence we have Reynolds’ worried fretting. Many new acts favour the past over the future, or rather than searching for ‘newness’ they are focused on ‘nowness’ (see my previous post). Should we mourn modernism’s passing; or should we kick it in the head, beat it in the balls and jump up on its head?