Pop modernism operates as a lobbying body within popular music. It is not the mainstream, but can enter the mainstream at periods of peak activity. For some, it is pop’s preferred state. It embraces the spirit of modernism outlined by Robert Hughes in The Shock of the New, expecting ‘cultural turmoil’ to foretell ‘social tumult’. Here, ‘music heralds’, fulfilling the purpose that Jacques Attali outlined for it:
Music is prophecy. Its styles and economic organization are ahead of the rest of society because it explores, much faster than material reality can, the entire range of possibilities in a given code. It makes audible the new world that will gradually become visible, that will impose itself and regulate the order of things; it is not only the image of things, but the transcending of the everyday, the herald of the future.
Pop modernism first surfaced in the late 1960s, as rock music attempted to splinter from pop. Although it inherited characteristics from fine art philosophies of modernism, it rested primarily upon ‘low theory’, as Simon Frith terms it, theory that was
developed out of day-to-day practices of pop itself . . . confused, inconsistent, full of hyperbole and silence, but still theory, and theory which is compelled by necessity to draw key terms and assumptions from high theory, from the more systematic accounts of art, commerce, pleasure and class that are available.
From the higher theorising of art, pop modernism has taken ideas of onward progress, originality, formal experimentation and technological fascination, a belief that you should reject ‘the current state of things in favour of the new’. It has also inherited an occasional snobbishness, a belief that progressive art should stand above ‘the realms of mass culture and everyday life’. Rock ideology, for example, included a rejection of the singles charts, as its ‘artists’ put their faith in albums instead. Speaking in 1967, Eric Clapton believed:
Singles are an anachronism. To get any good music in a space of two or three minutes requires working to a formula and that part of the pop scene really leaves me cold. I hate all that rushing around trying to get a hit.
There were technologies and institutions that helped rock artists to achieve these ends. Vinyl albums operated in a different manner to vinyl singles, both as objects and in the way that they functioned in the marketplace. Radio also helped to uphold the rock/pop split. In America the former genre was found on FM stations, while the latter remained on AM. In Britain, meanwhile, rock was the preserve of ‘specialist’ shows, broadcast in the evening hours. The two forms of music were also written about in different forms of print media, and there were different conventions when it came to playing live. It was not possible, however, for rock music to make a complete break from pop music. Unlike modernist fine art, rock music had been born within mass culture. Moreover, it was not always desirable to stay removed from the singles charts. Financially, rock artists needed to release singles in order to promote their albums. Artistically, some of them welcomed the challenge of bringing diversity to the charts. Marc Bolan declared, ‘me getting into the Top Twenty – as a musician alongside the pop stars – opens up a great thing’.
A modernist spirit has been present in popular music at several times since the late 1960s. It has not been consistent, however. There have been particular periods when pop has become more openly questing, and there have been times in which the conditions have been ripe for this impulse to be maximised. Technology has been one driver for pop’s expansion. Synthesisers, sequencers and samplers have each helped to push the music forwards, as have new recording formats, notably the 12” single. Drugs have been another prompt. LSD and MDMA are among those to offer enhanced horizons. Pop modernism can arise when the interplay between the major labels and the independent sector is in productive tension. Separate sales charts for alternative music and dance genres have helped to foster scenes; dedicated radio support has also been essential.
Many of those who complain about a decline of innovation in popular music have been involved in pop’s modernist spurts. Simon Reynolds is a prime example. He has stated:
When I started taking more than a passing interest in pop, as a teenager in the post-punk seventies, I immediately ingested a strong dose of modernism: the belief that art has some kind of evolutionary destiny, a teleology that manifests itself through genius artists and masterpieces that are monuments to the future. It was there already in rock, thanks to The Beatles, psychedelia and progressive rock, but post-punk drastically amped up the belief in constant change and endless innovation. Although by the early eighties modernism was thoroughly eclipsed within art and architecture, and postmodernism was seeping into popular music, this spirit of modernist pop carried on with rave and the experimental fringe of rock.
Pop modernists such as Reynolds hark back to the vital periods of their youth; they are nostalgic, as Svetlana Boym puts it, ‘for a prenostalgic state of being’. They yearn for an era when neither they nor the music they loved were retrospective. One of the prompts for this nostalgia is that it feels as though we should be experiencing radical musical innovation: we are living through a period of major technological and infrastructural change. However, we do not appear to have many new styles of music. Contrary to Jacques Attali, it is not music itself that is heralding a new economic order; it is instead the economic organization of music that is operating in advance of other markets.