The New Statesman has kindly re-posted my blog entry on ‘Retromania, Newness and Nowness’, giving it the new title ‘Pop has Substituted “Newness” for Innovation’. Published on this wider forum it has provoked some unrest. The criticisms of my work can be grouped into three mains areas. First, I’m told that if I want to find innovative music I’m looking in the wrong place. Second, it is pointed out to me that Retromania is not a new phenomenon. Third, I’m informed that as a Lecturer in Popular Music I have no right to be talking about popular music. I’ll deal with the second two complaints in later blog entries, but here I’ll address the search for innovative music.
My first response is that I never claimed to be looking for it myself. The article is instead about the proud boasts of major record labels and radio broadcasters that they are uncovering ‘new’ music. As such it is focused on these institutions as well as on the media companies who underpin their operations, hence the use of quotes from Q and the NME. My claim is that each of these players concentrates on the music of now, rather than on the music of the future; as such the article it is much against Simon Reynolds’ idea that retromania is all pervasive as it is against record companies’ and radio broadcasters’ claims to originality. The title that the New Statesman has given to the piece doesn’t help to make this clear, but I must admit that I’m also guilty of confusing the issue: my suggestion that that the last 20 years has seen a dearth of innovative music could be seen as provocative and distracting.
But what about the point that has been made: that I would find original music if I would only look in the right places. I’m sure there is some innovative music out there, but my own lazy belief is that we shouldn’t have to look too hard for it. It is the duty of radical music to enter the public consciousness. In my earlier piece I made the mistake of concentrating solely on aesthetics, however I would argue that any truly innovative work should be provoking change at a social level, as well as musically. I would go further and say that the two factors cannot be divorced: if a work is not prompting social change it cannot be regarded as aesthetically new. With formulations such as this it is always tempting to reverse the wording, thus adding that if music does not have a radical aesthetic it will not be effective at prompting social change. It is the case, however, that a song can be aesthetically conservative and yet still be the cause of social transformations. This can be because of factors in the music (lyrics inspire action, realism invokes idealism) and because of factors beyond the music (songs have radical videos, records can be attached to causes, artists make political statements in interviews). Nevertheless, it can be argued that popular music’s greatest moments of rupture, such as rock ‘n’ roll, psychedelia, punk, hip-hop and rave, have each promoted both aesthetic and social change. Conversely, a common criticism levelled at artists such as Madonna and Lady Gaga is that their art is not equal to their desire to provoke. The objective correlative does not add up.
In order to enter the public consciousness a new musical movement has to move beyond its own confines. It has to draw both converts and enemies, and it can only do this by encountering media organisations: it has to move beyond what Sarah Thornton has termed ‘micro media’, and deal with ‘niche’ and ‘mass’ media as well. Niche media would include music journalism and specialist radio programmes. Mass media is aimed at the general public, and would include TV programmes and the daily papers. Some of popular music’s greatest moments of frisson have occurred when artists have moved from the micro to the mass: the Sex Pistols with Bill Grundy; the Sun promoting and then denigrating acid house; Nirvana on Top of the Pops. These are the occasions when parents find out what there kids have been up to.
But this is to write of the world that I grew up in. It is also to write about a peculiarly British situation. The UK has for decades had a niche music press, but this press used to have a mass national readership: in the 1970s both the NME and Melody Maker achieved weekly sales of 300,000 copies, figures similar to the daily circulation of Britain’s broadsheets today. In this era the predominant specialist radio programmes (notably John Peel’s show) were also being broadcast nationally to large audiences: the BBC was retaining its hegemony. This set-up provided the means by which musical movements could be transmitted across regions even before they were picked up by mass media. It could also be argued that the mass media reached a wider audience than it does today. In the 1970s Top of the Pops could attract up to 15 million viewers (over 25% of the population). Once a song reached this programme it was truly a part of daily life.
The internet is different. Musicians can now, in theory, communicate directly with their fans – they should no longer need traditional forms of media. Alternatively, it is argued that the internet is a medium that has the potential to be more massive than anything we’ve seen before. Nevertheless, the dormancy of the majority of the long tail would indicate that links between the internet, niche media and mass media are needed, but they are not working properly for all. It is mostly songs backed by effective promotional campaigns that have received attention across the board. Consequently, the musical world is being skewed towards the major labels and their priority signings. It is not the long tail that should be the focus of studies, but instead the short head.
The most popular legal platform for music is YouTube, whose slogan ‘broadcast yourself’ proclaims it to be a mass media forum. But YouTube operates in both a narrowcast and broadcast manner: viewings for its videos can range from none to nearly two billion. It is a medium that has the ability to transmit videos to both niche and mainstream audiences, but only certain types of music are reaching a wider circle of people. What is more, they are only doing so after they have been reported on in other media outlets. At the moment these are primarily novelty songs (‘Gangnam Style’, ‘What Does the Fox Say?’) and sexuality-exploitative songs (‘Blurred Lines’, ‘Wrecking Ball’). On their own, massive viewing figures are no guarantee that a song has moved beyond its confines. YouTube is also watched individually or with peers, rather than with the family, thus I would argue that even a song such as Justin Bieber’s ‘Baby’ (which is the second most popular video on YouTube, with nearly one billion views) has not entered the general public consciousness. It has drawn neither converts nor enemies; it is for Beliebers only.
If this is the case for the most popular of songs, what does it mean for the radical new music that I’m told is hiding away in the corners of the internet? How will it provoke the social change that for me marks the triumph of aesthetic innovation? My main hope is that I am out of date. I hope there is a mass underground movement that I don’t know about yet because I don’t understand new technology. And then I want Top of the Pops to come back again so I can watch as this music goes overground and sit there tut-tutting at my kids.