November 10th, 2011 | Work
This is the ten-minute talk I stuck together at the last minute for BERG’s “Tomorrow’s World” event in London last night. Thanks to BERG and the audience for putting up with me, sorry it’s not very good:
When Jones talked me into doing this, he stuck me with the title “the near future of pop.” Which is just one more reason why I would very much like to kill Jones.
The near future of pop. Does he mean pop music? He must do, because Pop Art was dead before Rauschenberg started tracing comics panels.
I love pop music, because I come from the deep dark twentieth century, where we understood that popular music was a broad church, because it was the music on the pop charts. Laurie Anderson could sit in the top forty next to New Order, The Exploited, Lene Lovich, The Teardrop Explodes, Iron Maiden, Tom Tom Club and Elvis Costello.
Of course, today, the singles charts are just an extension of bad tv game shows, and the album charts trace little more than the buying habits of people without the internet. Your aged mother-in-law popping down to WH Smith to buy the Tony Bennett collection.
The near future? The future of anything is like some massive weather system on the horizon, pushing out thunderheads all over the place, and it’s impossible to predict where the lightning will strike. And in 2011 it’s worse than ever.
In 1987, the weather was much smaller and slower, and when the lightning struck, it set off a creeping wave that took a year to crawl all over the world. It took international travellers with their ears to the ground, listening for the future, to catch the new sound. Which is one reason why one of the central early acid house releases was by Genesis P Orridge. Today it’s happening everywhere, all the time. And the landing points have names.
Witch house, ghost drone, drag, dubstep, sublow, eski, grime, jungle, indie dance, rave, acid house, house. Footwork, juke, Chicago juke. Wonky, bassline. Chillout, chillwave, new wave, No Wave, lo-fi, glo-fi. Dreampop, hypnagogic pop, baroque pop, electropop, perfect pop, indiepop, power pop, pop will eat itself, pop-punk, ska pop, technopop, yacht pop, pop metal, glam metal, Ambient doom metal, regular doom metal, death metal, black metal, symphonic metal, viking metal, metalcore, grindcore –
– the hardcore continuum, which Kode9 calls “a way of understanding the evolution of music,” drawing a wobbly line through hardcore techno, garage, 2step, funky house, speed garage –
– I’m barely even started. I haven’t even touched jazz. Good old jazz. The original punk rock. Hasn’t done anything in years, jazz. Jazz, trad jazz, cool jazz, swing, hard bop, free jazz – let me back you up there, because in 1940 jazz spawned jump blues, and jump blues spawned rhythm and blues, and therefore rock and roll, and therefore donated genes to pop –
– And I’m not even getting near jazz musician Anthony Braxton, who invents a new kind of music annually, with names like Echo Echo Mirror House Music, Ghost Trance Music and Falling River Music.
You may think that some of the things I just mentioned aren’t pop. But, you know, a power metal band won the Eurovision Song Contest in 2006, which is as pop as shit gets. Lots of this stuff is popular enough to fill huge venues. All of it shares a few genes with the pop song.
And pop theorist Simon Reynolds is saying that Pop Will Eat Itself were right all along, because pop is eating itself, pop is now almost completely self-referential, not least because we live in this weird period of atemporality where a century of pop music is available wholly and freely and we’re trapped in a time loop of retromania.
But Amanda Brown of the Not Not Fun label says that’s the least modern attitude you can have towards the near future of pop, because, “There’s been almost no era when art hasn’t been hugely about the past – whether reacting to it, recreating it, destroying it.”
She also said this: “Of course I’m inspired by the past, but I’m not trying to re-live it. Styles don’t die; house music isn’t just about the era of its “golden years.” The history of it is still being written.” Which speaks directly to the hardcore continuum theory – tracking the evolving, mutating genestream of dance music through twenty-odd years. The history is still being written. The continuum continues, as continuums tend to do.
And as much as I might want to romanticise the dark days I came from, there was a 50s revival in the 70s, a 60s revival in the 80s, a 70s revival in the 90s and an 80s revival this year.
Punk came to kill the hippies, indie music came for the crimes of punk’s descendants, rave stomped on the bones of undanceable guitar misery. But they all traded bits of themselves. The world encircled by musical genestreams, information streams, as myriad as 1987 flightpaths. Crisscrossing, trading bits of themselves, spawning off new streams. The genetic soup gets awfully murky as it pours out of our speakers, sometimes.
All of which is to say: everything and nothing has changed.
Pop Will Eat Itself, sure, but the band Pop Will Eat Itself played something called Grebo, which was both a music and a shit haircut, and which traded genes with indie-dance and grunge and Britpop, and the lead singer and guitarist of that band, Clint Mansell, now creates film soundtracks, including that of Requiem For A Dream.
Which is kind of what we’re talking about. In even asking after the near-future of pop, you’re almost steeling yourself for bad news. It’s common knowledge that pop’s coughing blood and stopped taking fluids. There was a dream of pop, a constant signal of The New Sound, the noise that said we were in the future. Nik Cohn called it the “glorious burst of incoherent noise.”
What happened to that? You don’t hear it now. Even supposedly innovative acts like Lady Gaga produce utterly inoffensive pop pap. It’s what everything in what we think of as the current pop world sounds like.
Not that my sixteen year old daughter knows anything about that. The thing about an early-stage networked culture where everything is available on demand means that you have to know about it to demand it. It’s why companies like last.fm, and most social networks, have always put “music discovery” towards the top of their priorities. They know that common culture has been fractured by the internet and the remains bought and paid for by scum. But my daughter has a t-shirt that reads OF COURSE I’M NOT ON FUCKING FACEBOOK. She uses YouTube playlists, and her friends’ tastes, and even music magazines, and plots her own course through pop.
And she doesn’t know, or care to be told, what her favourite pop bands owe to the Pixies or Bowie or Velvet Underground. Atemporality means nothing to her. This is hers, and that’s how it should be. And pop, in relation to the wreckage of mainstream media, has gone underground, and perhaps that’s how it should be too. Underground and everywhere, at the speed of light.
It’s on YouTube and net radio and Soundcloud and Bandcamp and pirate radio and mixtape files. And occasionally a pop movement with a big enough count of healthy genes will put escape velocity to a couple of proponents, and all of a sudden Dizzee Rascal’s an actual pop star.
The near future? Pop will go down into the tube station at midnight and have sex. Lots of sex. And all those genres I listed earlier? Every single year will generate a list of new genres like that. Then every six months. Then every month. Then every week. Pop will fuck and mutate and survive. The new sounds will be everywhere, in too many places for us to notice them all at once. A million glorious bursts of incoherent noise.