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Yves here. I can’t readily confirm or deny the Marc Fisher contention that culture change has slowed down because truth be told, I’ve never done much pop culture. But in indirect confirmation, having listened to a lot of rock from the mid 1960s to late 1970s, and then continuing to hear a lot as gyms (until new ASCAP rules considerably limited what instructors could put on their mix tapes), I was at least on top of top tunes. One thing that is striking is that when I was young, music from the 1940s and 1950s sounded almost antique. Yet hits from the 1960s and on still get a lot of play.
The decline in average quality of movies and dependence on franchises also supports Fisher’s argument. Readers?
By Mark Fisher, the author of ‘Capitalist Realism’ and ‘Ghosts of my Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology and Lost Futures’ (both published by Zer0 books). His writing appeared in a wide variety of publications, including Film Quarterly, The Wire, The Guardian and Frieze. He died in 2017. Cross posted from openDemocracy
Mark Fisher’s book ‘Ghosts of My Life’ was published in 2014 | Laura Grace Ford
This is an edited extract from Mark Fisher’s 2014 book ‘Ghosts of My Life’, recently published in a new edition by Zero Books. Read Gerry Hassan’s essay on Fisher and alternative futures here.
In his book ‘After The Future’, Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi refers to the “the slow cancellation of the future [that] got underway in the 1970s and 1980s”. By ‘future’, he elaborates:
I am not referring to the direction of time. I am thinking, rather, of the psychological perception, which emerged in the cultural situation of progressive modernity, the cultural expectations that were fabricated during the long period of modern civilization, reaching a peak after the Second World War. These expectations were shaped in the conceptual frameworks of an ever progressing development, albeit through different methodologies: the Hegel-Marxist mythology of Aufhebung and founding of the new totality of Communism; the bourgeois mythology of a linear development of welfare and democracy; the technocratic mythology of the all-encompassing power of scientific knowledge; and so on. My generation grew up at the peak of this mythological temporalization, and it is very difficult, maybe impossible, to get rid of it, and look at reality without this kind of temporal lens. I’ll never be able to live in accordance with the new reality, no matter how evident, unmistakable, or even dazzling its social planetary trends. (After The Future, AK Books, 2011, pp18-19).
Bifo is a generation older than me, but he and I are on the same side of a temporal split here. I, too, will never be able to adjust to the paradoxes of this new situation. The immediate temptation here is to fit what I’m saying into a wearily familiar narrative: it is a matter of the old failing to come to terms with the new, saying it was better in their day. Yet it is just this picture – with its assumption that the young are automatically at the leading edge of cultural change – that is now out of date.
Rather than the old recoiling from the ‘new’ in fear and incomprehension, those whose expectations were formed in an earlier era are more likely to be startled by the sheer persistence of recognisable forms. Nowhere is this clearer than in popular music culture. It was through the mutations of popular music that many of those of us who grew up in the 1960s, 70s and 80s learned to measure the passage of cultural time. But faced with 21st-century music, it is the very sense of future shock which has disappeared.
This is quickly established by performing a simple thought experiment. Imagine any record released in the past couple of years being beamed back in time to, say, 1995 and played on the radio. It’s hard to think that it will produce any jolt in the listeners. On the contrary, what would be likely to shock our 1995 audience would be the very recognisability of the sounds: would music really have changed so little in the next 17 years? Contrast this with the rapid turnover of styles between the 1960s and the 90s: play a jungle record from 1993 to someone in 1989 and it would have sounded like something so new that it would have challenged them to rethink what music was, or could be.
While 20th-century experimental culture was seized by a recombinatorial delirium, which made it feel as if newness was infinitely available, the 21st century is oppressed by a crushing sense of finitude and exhaustion. It doesn’t feel like the future. Or, alternatively, it doesn’t feel as if the 21st century has started yet. We remain trapped in the 20th century.
The slow cancellation of the future has been accompanied by a deflation of expectations. There can be few who believe that in the coming year a record as great as, say, the Stooges’ ‘Funhouse’ or Sly Stone’s ‘There’s a Riot Goin’ On’ will be released. Still less do we expect the kind of ruptures brought about by The Beatles or disco. The feeling of belatedness, of living after the gold rush, is as omnipresent as it is disavowed.
Compare the fallow terrain of the current moment with the fecundity of previous periods and you will quickly be accused of ‘nostalgia’. But the reliance of current artists on styles that were established long ago suggests that the current moment is in the grip of a formal nostalgia, of which more shortly.
It is not that nothing happened in the period when the slow cancellation of the future set in. On the contrary, those 30 years have been a time of massive, traumatic change. In the UK, the election of Margaret Thatcher had brought to an end the uneasy compromises of the so-called postwar social consensus.
Thatcher’s neoliberal programme in politics was reinforced by a transnational restructuring of the capitalist economy. The shift into so-called Post-Fordism – with globalisation, ubiquitous computerisation and the casualisation of labour – resulted in a complete transformation in the way that work and leisure were organised. In the last 10 to 15 years, meanwhile, the internet and mobile telecommunications technology have altered the texture of everyday experience beyond all recognition.
Yet, perhaps because of all this, there’s an increasing sense that culture has lost the ability to grasp and articulate the present. Or it could be that, in one very important sense, there is no present to grasp and articulate any more.
The future didn’t disappear overnight. Berardi’s phrase “the slow cancellation of the future” is so apt because it captures the gradual yet relentless way in which the future has been eroded over the last 30 years. If the late 1970s and early 80s were the moment when the current crisis of cultural temporality could first be felt, it was only during the first decade of the 21st century that what Simon Reynolds calls “dyschronia” has become endemic.
This dyschronia, this temporal disjuncture, ought to feel uncanny, yet the predominance of what Reynolds calls “retromania” means that it has lost any unheimlich charge: anachronism is now taken for granted. Fredric Jameson’s diagnosis of postmodernism – with its tendencies towards retrospection and pastiche – has been naturalised.
Take someone like the stupendously successful Adele: although her music is not marketed as retro, there is nothing that marks out her records as belonging to the 21st century either. Like so much contemporary cultural production, Adele’s recordings are saturated with a vague but persistent feeling of the past without recalling any specific historical moment.
Jameson equates the postmodern “waning of historicity” with the “cultural logic of late capitalism”, but he says little about why the two are synonymous. Why did the arrival of neoliberal, postFordist capitalism lead to a culture of retrospection and pastiche?
Perhaps we can venture a couple of provisional conjectures here. The first concerns consumption. Could it be that neoliberal capitalism’s destruction of solidarity and security brought about a compensatory hungering for the well-established and the familiar? Paul Virilio has written of a “polar inertia” that is a kind of effect of and counterweight to the massive speeding up of communication.
Virilio’s example is Howard Hughes, living in one hotel room for 15 years, endlessly rewatching Ice Station Zebra. Hughes, once a pioneer in aeronautics, became an early explorer of the existential terrain that cyberspace will open up, where it is no longer necessary to physically move in order to access the whole history of culture. Or, as Berardi has argued, the intensity and precariousness of late capitalist work culture leaves people in a state where they are simultaneously exhausted and overstimulated.
The combination of precarious work and digital communications leads to a besieging of attention. In this insomniac, inundated state, Berardi claims, culture becomes de-eroticised. The art of seduction takes too much time, and, according to Berardi, something like Viagra answers not to a biological but to a cultural deficit: desperately short of time, energy and attention, we demand quick fixes. Like another of Berardi’s examples, pornography, retro offers the quick and easy promise of a minimal variation on an already familiar satisfaction.
The other explanation for the link between late capitalism and retrospection centres on production. Despite all its rhetoric of novelty and innovation, neoliberal capitalism has gradually but systematically deprived artists of the resources necessary to produce the new.
In the UK, the post-war welfare state and higher education maintenance grants constituted an indirect source of funding for most of the experiments in popular culture between the 1960s and the 80s. The subsequent ideological and practical attack on public services meant that one of the spaces where artists could be sheltered from the pressure to produce something that was immediately successful was severely circumscribed. As public service broadcasting became ‘marketised’, there was an increased tendency to turn out cultural productions that resembled what was already successful.
The result of all of this is that the social time available for withdrawing from work and immersing oneself in cultural production drastically declined. If there’s one factor above all else which contributes to cultural conservatism, it is the vast inflation in the cost of rent and mortgages. It’s no accident that the efflorescence of cultural invention in London and New York in the late 1970s and early 80s (in the punk and post-punk scenes) coincided with the availability of squatted and cheap property in those cities. Since then, the decline of social housing, the attacks on squatting, and the delirious rise in property prices have meant that the amount of time and energy available for cultural production has massively diminished.
But perhaps it was only with the arrival of digital communicative capitalism that this reached terminal crisis point. Naturally, the besieging of attention described by Berardi applies to producers as much as consumers. Producing the new depends upon certain kinds of withdrawal – from, for instance, sociality as much as from pre-existing cultural forms – but the currently dominant form of socially networked cyberspace, with its endless opportunities for micro-contact and its deluge of YouTube links, has made withdrawal more difficult than ever before.
Or, as Simon Reynolds so pithily put it, in recent years, everyday life has sped up, but culture has slowed down.
Accepting that for these purposes culture is ‘learning and taste, the intellectual side of civilization,’ there is a progressive bias to this piece in Taleb’s sense:
Principle 4: Never use terms such as progressive or conservative without reference to a rate of change… Rationally progressive means embracing progress by accepting a certain rate of change deemed optimal. Too high a rate of change cancels the gains from previous mutations; while too slow a change leads to misfitness.
Here’s a starter critique:
> On the contrary, what would be likely to shock our 1995 audience would be the very recognisability of the sounds
What I do know is that, at least within hip-hop, the recognizability comes from sampling previous works, while the innovation came in lyrics. The words took on as much importance as the beat. The storytelling and content are far more complex than what previous generations are listening to.
Also, the sophistication in musicianship is higher, with apparent screamo music having complex polyrhythms on top of high musicianship; for example, Sword of Mars.
Steve, as a hip-hop head who grew up listening to the “golden age” 90s, I would appreciate it if you could provide some examples since I don’t really keep up with music anymore. You say “the recognizability comes from sampling previous works,” but it seems like most of the new genres like trap are quite different than what came before. And you say “the words took on as much importance as the beat,” but from what I’ve sampled, lyrics are no longer a main focus in contemporary hip-hop, which is why older rappers are always complaining about “mumblerap.”
agreed as another hip hop head. if you listen to Masta Ace, you could not have more clear lyrics.
Mumblerap’s peak is in the past (here’s Bizzy from 2017). But I’ll call myself out if I disrespected lyrics from the classics, and given the Cardi B counter-example. As a mea culpa, here’s a selection of lyrics meeting the bar from last year.
Thanks for the link. Never thought I’d be discussing hip-hop on NC lol
I’ve just started to get into 90’s hip-hop and I found this awesome channel on Youtube:
Hours of music!
But you can hear trap sounds in the jungle & trip-hop music of the 90s.
And frankly, by the 2010s the sound of the rapid fire or stuttering 32nd/16th notes, especially on hi-hats, had become gimmicky.
And here is a proto-type trap beat from the 80s:
The Time – “777-9311”
Brought to you by Prince.
And now….Going back to the 70s now for another proto-type trap beat…drums aren’t as loud in the mix as they would become beginning in the 80s.
Cameo – “Shake Your Pants”
Have to disagree. There’s a lot of really interesting music in the hyperpop genre right now and a few contemporary jazz groups are integrating digital tech into their sound to create something that is not like anything I’ve heard before. You can listen to artists from anywhere in the world, anytime you want and sample every era of music. I frankly think it’s a great period right now for music lovers. Plus, cheap audiophile equipment from China can be mixed up with vintage kit for a reasonably priced hybrid digital/analog setup. That said, the quality of commercial movies that I’ve seen in the past few years is mediocre. But I can’t stand 90% of the superhero genre and that’s pretty dominant in commercial terms. Dramas tend to be about contemporary bourgeois issues like always. The last Christopher Nolan movie was inscrutable. But you can watch classic films in HD quality on a giant flat screen in your living room for a quarter of what a 25″ color set/VCR combination cost in the 1980s.
You’re probably way more tuned in than I am, but I know that there is always an Albert Ayler lurking around the fringes. I owned an independent record store from ’79 to ’92. With the advent of ‘mo-fo’, ‘hoe’ and the Andrew Dice Clays I cashed it in. My biggest selling record of all time was The Violent Femmes first album. I sold box loads. It never showed up on Billboards Top 200 albums of the week. Around ’87 or ’88 Billboard went from phone in reporting on record sales to electronic reporting by actual sales. The Top 200 chart was revolutionized overnight, and Femmes popped in at around #160.
The Billboard charts of the ’80’s contained no nostalgia only the occasional retro numbers like The Stray Cats. Led Zepp’s first album was the exception to the rule.
The punks of the late ’70’s kicked off an enormous ferment in musical styles and tastes.
This piece led me to check out the current Billboard Top 200…nostalgia everywhere. Future Nostalgia checks in at #9…ha! Queen’s Greatest Hits at #23…trash-o-rama Fleetwood Mac Rumors #34…who cares about their superior early blues or Christine McVie…and the list goes on…Journey at #66…oh, the pain!
I’m reminded of the 1970’s music scene…yes, there really wasn’t a music scene. A retro Sid, Johnny and The Clash would hardly be a bad thing.
‘The punks of the late ’70’s kicked off an enormous ferment in musical styles and tastes’
True, but might be argued that the Stooges, MC5 etc lit the fuse which led to the Pistols and Clash (etc) explosion later on, the crescendo building under the cover of disco and the death throes of dinosaur rock. Here in Australia, seminal acts like The Saints and Radio Birdman had taken Iggy’s cues well before Never Mind the Bollocks came out, and deeply influenced the development of later bands like Midnight Oil and the Hoodoo Gurus.
Having said that, yes the revolution of the late 70s was key; one of the big dinosaurs Neil Young recognised that earlier than most (My My, Hey Hey – this is the story of Johnny Rotten, it’s better to burn out than to fade away…) and the glorious rough edge that has characterised his music ever since can in large part be attributed to that recognition.
The key test of cultural staying power for me is if older music sounds (or ‘feels’) dated and therefore vaguely comic, or whether I think it would turn heads if it was released today rather than way back when. To my mind, Never Mind the Bollocks will live forever because while I can’t listen to Simple Minds and other techno beat studio stuff from the 80s without cracking a grin at it, Bollocks still possesses the unique galvanic quality it had in 1977.. ditto most early Clash, and that quality ensures if not immortality then at least a longevity denied to the ‘of the moment’ poseur mannerisms (and hairstyles) that followed.
To demonstrate this, take a look at this clip of the Pistols from a gig in London in 2007, or more to the point look at the audience. Most of them wouldn’t have been born when Bollocks was released and yet they appear to know every word to every song and belt them out as if their lives depended upon it. That crowd is literally heaving. Some sort of basic connection exists there without doubt.
My wife bought 4 tickets for us and the kids to see the Hoodoos (supported by the Dandy Warhols) last week for my birthday. It was great, and my 26yo old daughter braved the mosh pit to better enjoy the Dandys songs she grew up hearing, while my teenage son, an occasional guitarist, was carefully watching the interplay between Shepherd and Faulkner on songs he and his mates play for fun. Yes they like lots of newer stuff, but while they like to poke fun at our ‘trash’ oldster tastes, the songs you hear most often walking past the bathroom during their (interminable) showers were recorded before the turn of the millennium…
I think I would have enjoyed browsing in yr store Chuck. Have recently been on an early Fleetwood Mac/Peter Green binge, and had a listen to that first Femmes album just the other day.
Yeah, there’s a lot of interesting new music happening. It takes some effort to find it, and perhaps more than in the past because so much is available now via the Internet. Listening to Adele just means somebody isn’t making any effort. What do they expect? We live in a kind of strange moment in which YouTube is both a cesspool and a goldmine for music.
Ditto for Marvel, Disney, and franchise films. You can’t go to see one of them and expect the creativity and experimental spirit of Godard (rest in power, btw). Again, there are interesting new films being made, but don’t expect to find many of them screening at a shopping mall multiplex.
Also, FWIW, Jameson actually says quite a bit about the “waning of historicity” and the postmodern condition. To cite only two examples from Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism:
Thanks for that.
Im reminded once again of the giant hole in my voluminous reading: jameson.
I must amend that deficit.
I will second this… the problem is not that creativity has ceased, it’s that it is smothered by the ‘mainstream’. The music industry has been overrun by MBAs, and achieve much the same outcomes as the other fields they’ve sacked. Bands such as Radiohead have been pushing the envelope for a long time. Then there is the overt move to replace paid musicianship with Ai slaves… already happening and it is horrifying.
For an example of utterly creative contemporary music:
Little Dragon (NPR Tiny Desk Concert) – Swedish band I have enjoyed for many years now
One thing that is striking is that when I was young, music from the 1940s and 1950s sounded almost antique. Yet hits from the 1960s and on still get a lot of play.
There’s one big and seldom grasped reason for that. Carole Kaye started having hits with The Beach Boys, the Ronettes and other acts playing her Fender Precision bass. Quincy Jones (Michael Jackson’s producer and Count Basie’s arranger) even said the Fender—the LA musician’s union logged all electric bass dates as “Fender” dates for quite some time—was what allowed the rhythm section to come up front so drummers could play as loudly as they wanna. And with Motown and Stax having non stop hits featuring the Fender, that’s where music irreversibly went. Hendrix would have had no way to play through his wailing Fender Start and feedbacking Marshall amp stack over the top with a standup bass behind him without burying he bass and drums.
There’s also the adoption of multitracking and Fairchild compressors (Motown and the Beatles secret weapon), but let’s spare everyone that digression which would still not eliminate the priority the Fender bass holds for turning the corner in recording sonics, mainly because those other technical developments made allowed records to put the bass in your face.
I surmise Fischer more intellectual spiritual and aesthetic matters which come across as rants against what the kids are now doing. Frankly, from what little I’ve read of his, he’s myopic and not perceptive— he seems sole—focused on sociological—issues or having that much good taste to push onto the same plateau as more the imminent Isaiah Berlin, Jakob Burkhardt, Hegel, or even Griel Marcus or Lester Bangs, on the history of aesthetics. But, hey, if you get something from it, don’t let me steal your joy.
One final point. All that stuff about the Fender bass, it was purposed for one thing above all, to get people to dance. To me, and I all sincerity, that is a most noble goal, but try to find one white music commentator who gives that more than a passing thought.
If a person is really tuned in to the music (or poetry, painting, theater, sculpture, and so on), I am sure that they can so good contemporary art, but it is not the same. Just how many people are able to do so? Not only does it help to have access to the internet, it also helps to have access to people in real time. For that matter, affordable concerts are ever much better especially if you go with others. There is a reason why plays, concerts (ballet and classical most of all) paintings, and anything else has been transformed into either overpriced shows of beauty or overpriced garbage. I get annoyed with people including family and friends telling me about all the great bands of the 50s, 60s, and 70s that they heard in concert. I remember seeing paintings and sculptures in person as they should be which showed how faded seeing it on a screen is.
I think that every single means of cultural expression has been crapified or made hideously expensive with their expression having nothing to do with most people. But then, so has much else.
This comment is getting disjointed, but lets bring up architecture. A fascinating subject which has connections in all parts of society: the wide boulevards of Paris offering great fields of fire and built after the Paris Commune was suppressed, the Beaux-Arts style of the City Beautiful Movement, the Art Deco style of the early skyscrapers like the Chrysler Building, the Empire State Building, or the Golden Gate Bridge, even the Brutalism of the Embarcadero Center (a crime against humanity) or the International Modern, which is akin to Bauhaus, and the examples of glass boxes are everywhere.
Post modern vomitoriums are examples of visual pollution everywhere as well. The Sony Building in NYC, the Piazza d’Italia in New Orleans (when I first saw pictures in class, I thought it was joke), or the Bank of China building in Hong Kong. Big ugly intrusions surrounded by oceans of concrete that either overwhelmed anything human sized or of a community. If not that, then smaller ludicrous buildings meant to surprise (I think horrify is correct.)
Whatever one’s views on the various styles, the further back you go the more there is an intentional effort to create community and the closer to now, there it is to shout Look at Meeee! and to suppress anything human sized; an effort to create coherent beauty to egotistical bulls—-.
One thing that is striking is that when I was young, music from the 1940s and 1950s sounded almost antique. Yet hits from the 1960s and on still get a lot of play.
The 60’s was the equivalent of the impressionist era of painting for rock music almost exactly a century later, so much original sounding talent (and lotsa dreck too-we just forget that part) trying to top one another.
If there wasn’t Pet Sounds-you don’t get Sgt Pepper’s, and so on.
When I was a little kid growing up you wouldn’t believe how many garage bands there were with high school kids playing in my most uncool surroundings in east LA.
I’m content to live in the past as far as music goes, it’s like comfort food for my ears.
I agree that music from before the mid-1960s sounds antique, and Googling it, apparently that was when multitrack recording was perfected, so you could have four or many more channels all perfectly combined. I think that also made it possible to re-master recordings in stereo if they weren’t recorded in stereo to begin with.
Thinking about this, I have discerned ages of pop recording:
pre-circa-1964: mono, single channel or very little track mixing
1964-1969: mono, multi-channel Wall of Sound
1970-circa 2002: stereo, multi-channel
2002-end of music history, perfection attained: stereo, multichannel + AutoTune that makes every screeching cat sound like a pop star and every singer of any genre sound like a pop star
Something happened to production, too. In the 50s, 60s and 70s, there was a substantial difference between the quiet sounds and the loud ones. Consider the Beatles’ Day in the Life, or the Sensational Alex Harvey’s Last of the Teenage Idols, both of which start quiet and get very loud.
That volume differentiation is gone now. Everything is mixed to what sounds like a common band of noise. Same with Hollywood movie mixes: the audio track is filled with stuff (music, foley, street noise, the inevitable explosion), whereas a film from the 1950s might show considerable aural variation.
Re. the author’s point about state support for education and the workless and the availability of housing, absolutely! In the 1970s a working class person could quit their job and find another one, or stay at home reading books and playing the guitar. This gave us The Clash, and other bands whose most political works we no longer hear (“Rock the Casbah” is a favourite on “classic rock” stations, but “The Call Up” is not to be heard).
The Loudness War reportedly ended in a resounding victory for dynamic range, quoth Sound on Sound in 2011. However, since then, streaming platforms apparently perform their own loudness normalization for good or ill reasons. And some new production of retro genres will crush the dynamics for high fidelity (to their ancestors).
Ive noticed a general lack of dynamic ability in the sundry pop im exposed to while im corrupting the youth(GAC, especially=corpse country)
Nothing like, say, james brown, or early aretha…let alone ella…
Given, its hard to do…speaking as a former pro
But are you getting the music from CD or a streaming service that might have done God knows what?
That is immediately what I was about to tell folks.
The “sound” of post-50s music is multi-track recording AND compression.
If the reading on multi-tracking has you fascinated, also check out writings on the loudness wars.
Too much compression and loud volumes can actually make your “ears tired.” In the 90s, listening to car radio, I’d find myself having to turn the volume up to hear after long periods of listening.
In the digital realm, sparseness in music became the in thing to do in order to increase the loudness. People began to equate a good mix/master with a loud one.
Post-2000s one will also find a change in the way bass is used in pop & R&B/Soul/Hip-Hop.
I lament what has happened to dynamics and bass frequencies in an effort to trick compressors, algorithmic and otherwise.
There are some interesting things still going on creatively, but the sonics leave me empty.
Culture went commercial starting in the 80s.
its’s much less risky for the MBAs and lawyers who run record labels or who run LVMH to stick with a formula that works. Nostalgia sells.
There is certainly something to these arguments about the economic backdrop to the creative arts in recent decades. Yet when we look back at older genres of classical music, periods/eras of work that sound very similar to us today spanned decades of historical time. Perhaps we are just in such another era now, with the aberration being the (long) period of transition, in which change seemed the only constant?
I think if the thesis is true about culture slowing down, it’s due to increased life expectancy and the clinging to career seen in the oldest generations. When leaders in industry and politics and entertainment are septuagenarians, you will not see evolution.
To add to your point I think these days everyone fears getting old, so they hold on tightly to their youth Peter Pan-like. Aging gracefully is to be resisted fiercely. The aging rockers keep playing because the aging Baby Boomers wish to pretend that they are 25 instead of 70. The younger artists, for commercial reasons, feel the need to cater to Boomers tastes which is retro to a great degree.
It may also be that this is the first time in human history that a generation can pretty much replay their whole life at will.
I can at any moment binge on tv shows, movies and music of my youth for example.
This is central to the diagnosis: “The combination of precarious work and digital communications leads to a besieging of attention. In this insomniac, inundated state, Berardi claims, culture becomes de-eroticised. The art of seduction takes too much time, and, according to Berardi, something like Viagra answers not to a biological but to a cultural deficit”
Not that people in the U.S. were ever good at flirting, but it has become increasingly obvious that much of U.S. writing is rather pinched. There isn’t the emotional wallop, and there is no intention by the writer to produce emotional resonance. Some of this comes from the factory-outlet feel of the novels and stories coming out of MFA programs.
Symptoms and countersymptoms:
–Hamilton. Self-congratulatory historical dabbling hung on a late-stage Sondheimian structure.
–The Book of Mormon. Sets the place on fire–and uses naughty words well.
–Amanda Gorman. Regime poet and modeling-agency listee.
–The U.S. still has some poets lurking out there. I can think of gay writers Henri Cole and Mark Doty.
All in all, though, the economy, the bureaucracy of the arts world (and its endless skimming), the influence of foundations, and the unwillingness to tear down received truths conspire against innovation. And lead to stagnation. (I once was at a talkback after a reading of one of my plays and had to remind my audience not to receive the received truth: “My play isn’t about redemption and forgiveness.”)
Fisher’s economic analysis is on the mark: In the U.S., writing programs in fiction, theater, and screenwriting produce acceptable products who write acceptable products. The indebted newly minted writers, though, can hardly spend time in garrets scribbling away, so they seek to return to academia, teaching in those writing programs. And engaged in the endless search for the powerful literary agent.
I think that the graphic novel has been a major revelation in recent years. (Although I think that the Italian, Zerocalcare, is better at capturing the spirit of the times than others that I have read.)
And a reminder that Mark Fisher is author of Exiting the Vampire Castle, which is repeated cited here at Naked Capitalism because of Fisher’s appeal to us not to fall into the trap of our prejudices:
This is a great point, and I note the word ‘class’ has not yet appeared on this page. (Oh, well now it does.)
‘Garage’ appears twice, though, and I’ll suggest a change from 2013 is that the young adults I know view social media with suspicion, and are more oriented to local systems like bands and permaculture collectives and writing groups. So there may be a discontinuity between culture as perceived through popular media, and what is actually growing at the grassroots level. The smaller systems do not necessarily connect to each other, though.
Out on a limb & over my skis here, but I think there’s plenty of culture brewing, it’s just disconnected from mass movement. The class war is over, They won, and the locals are preparing to keep each other alive. A note from Andre 3000:
Hopped in a Lamb’ with it, in a damn pandemic
Nerve of Uncle Sam gotta have his damn hand in it
I think that the author misses something when they say ‘it doesn’t feel as if the 21st century has started yet. We remain trapped in the 20th century.’ To a large extent that is true but I am not sure that the question was properly answered so I will have a go. What cannot be denied is how corporations have taken over the control of the arts for their own personal profit over the past thirty years so it is the beancounters in charge now, a group not renowned for their artistic aptitudes. So as an example, take a look at Hollywood films with its endless repetitive nature of sequels, prequels and remakes of past films or TV series. How many truly talented people can get a decent film made these days if it means having to get past the beancounting executives first. Same with music where the big labels aim to dominate music – exploit really – and so they are reduced to having algorithms trying to write music that will please people. If we had the equivalent of The Beatles appear right now, would they be able to so far under the present regime? And if you really want to push it, look at other areas of how our culture is playing itslef out like architecture, painting, etc. So much of them captured by denizens of the PMC and made for them to be forced on the rest of us. But as seen in this article, the dogs aren’t eating the dog food and are making their own cultural arts or seeking it in other countries via the internet.
In defense of the bean counters our society is addicted to junk food in all of its forms and permutations. Hollywood makes films that sell because they are in the business of making money. After all, show business is an industry like any other. Most, if not all, of the major studios are owned by corporations that are under tremendous pressure to deliver ever increasing profits. Financialization has as much to do with the current state of affairs as anything.
Chicken, meet egg…
‘How many truly talented people can get a decent film made these days if it means having to get past the beancounting executives first’
Not just the beancounters, but the censors and fact-checkers and other Doublethink enforcement orcs… if you were say an ‘anti-vaxxer’ Ukraine war-critic who thought biological male trans people should not compete in women’s sports, how far would you go, talent notwithstanding? Even if your film had absolutely nothing to do with any of those subjects?
I get that the neoliberal circumscribing of the economic space required for creativity is key here, but part of the circumscribing of necessary space relates to the acceptability or not of certain thoughts or convictions or beliefs. To me that must be at least as important.
We also have at least one lost decade during the entry into the 21th.
Also, creative culture seems to spring from a combination of youth and hardship.
These days though i suspect much of that is being channeled into memes etc, and also hidden behind logins and such to avoid the social media thought police.
” the post-war welfare state and higher education maintenance grants constituted an indirect source of funding for most of the experiments in popular culture between the 1960s and the 80s. ”
then thatcher/reagan undid all that, which removed the subsistence that allowed for artistic and cultural ferment.
one of my first anthropological observations was that post reagan pop music was formulaic and corpsefied.
i dont think this was an accident…the connection between the art/culture ferment and kids not wanting to go off to war, get married, get a career, etc…would have been evident to the pmc of the day.
something ive noticed more recently…and re: youtube…at least before the crapification of the “suggestion” algo: the incredible diversity of music out there. i had no idea that there were so many music festivals going on all over the place…nor the sheer chaoticism of the mixin and matching of genre.
one cannot discount the effect of everyone having at least a rudimentary studio in their pocket.
as for the accusations of being derivative/retro…what were elvis, hendrix, led zepplin, etc if not the same…copying the music of a previous era?
the difference between now and 1962 is that kids no longer hafta hunt through record stores to add new and to them strange music.
its all there: from bach to Koto to pashtun folk to Baul Sufi music to malagasy world beat to nico and vince.
if the homogenisation via corporate hydraulic despotism was intentional, here…maybe…is the backlash..perhaps akin to Herbert’s “scattering” in God Emperor.
i also note the explosion of the Dave Matthews/Phish/ICP marketing/production model…no BMI or big labels…self produced, marketed by bootleg and youtube and bandcamp.
for once, in this at least, i’m more of an optimist in my outlook.
Absolutely, and those effects are far-reaching. A laptop or desktop PC can contain multitudes of quite well-appointed studios, with every audio processor, famous vintage synth emulator, or instrument sampler one could ever want, at any price point including naught. Most home producers might also want some acoustic musical instruments, mics, and/or a keyboard controller, depending on genre, and an audio interface box is highly recommended because built-in soundcards are hit-or-miss these days. Anyone could produce works comparable to anything on TV, given a grand burning a hole in their pocket, a lax attitude toward IP, and some music inside them. Nothing a good barista couldn’t arrange with a little luck and some diligence.
Given easy access to the means of high musical production, now indie talent is less concentrated and more distributed among people. Lyrics are less aspirational, more down-to-earth. Instrumental music produced 100% inside-the-box is also quite common. Also to talent distribution, multi-instrumental skills are the rule (by necessity; who’s got regular time off to jam anymore?) rather than the exception. Ensemble skills and showmanship are de-emphasized in favor of composition, arrangement, and production skills. Such a musician has a different, slightly more commanding relationship with time, as they visually nudge whole takes or individual notes closer to the beat line.
The potential for a “bowling alone” effect is there. Some Internet music out there does exhibit a certain solipsistic aloofness, possibly the same as Fisher’s “de-eroticization”, as if the audience for which it was written has already exhausted judgment on it by releasing it to the four winds. But that might owe more to the general zeitgeist than the musical zeitgeist in particular. Ultimately I share optimism in “low music”, as a ferment of subculture that may eventually become more important than the church music of the mainstream.
Re solipsism and bowling alone: see tash sultana.
Aussie busker whos uppermid folks decided to roll with her passion to get her off the street.
Remarkable talent, but wTching her, one wonders if shes capable of playing with others
That’s a keeper, amfortas. No “de-eroticization” there; she definitely plays well with the listener (but R&B can’t really work without a bit of eros anyway). Her space-pop crossover stuff is particularly interesting IMO. She contains enough multitudes for a whole band; the Brian Eno to match her Robert Fripp would be a rare bird indeed.
99% of techno is basically auteurs sitting at a computer, where an extra pair of hands isn’t very helpful. There, eros is hit-or-miss, due not to the beat but to the cupidity.
Without wandering into the abyss of musical attributes, one factor not mentioned for this quality of being stuck in the 20th century is the combination of medical advances and the economic benefits of compounding interest. This has resulted in the baby boom generation hanging on much longer than previous generation. Just look at Congress. The democratic leadership is fixated on returning to the Clinton years of the 90’s, while the republican leadership pines for the Reagan years of the 80’s. There’s no forward thinking or recognition that conditions have changed and new approaches are necessary. Furthermore, with baby boomers healthier than past generations, they are driving consumption habits that are more in line with late 20th century behavior. Combine that with student debt and succeeding generations have reduced influence in directing the overall economy.
The future has not been cancelled so much as we’re slow waking into the 21st century.
The centralization, commodification, and financialization forces are manifesting themselves in culture. One effect is to starve the little guy of a niche to flourish within before they’re squashed by the steam-rollers (centralization, commodification, financialization).
Back in the sixties, there were companies and bands formed in people’s garages. There was more local, small-scale diversity, and towns and cities had rather more unique character. Mass media homogenizes that, and flattens the local biosphere, removing niches for the little guy to get started within.
To test this thesis: imagine walking down Main street in the sixties, and the shops and stores you’d encounter. Now (mentally) walk down the middle of your local shopping mall. What do you see? National brands, franchises, replication after replication of formulaic models.
The other aspect is the capture of people’s attention by social media. In one sense, it offers access to a plethora of behaviors, the variety of which you’d never see in small-town 70s. But the set of exhibited behaviors – watch videos, order something, show your friends what you had for breakfast, or a picture of your pet squirrel doing something cute – the set of exhibited behaviors (e.g. what’s actually done, not watched) is narrowing.
The set of values is narrowing, too. Culture is an expression of values and capabilities, and both are narrowing. Hence fewer variations.
But there are very definitely elements of today’s young people – and maybe society at large – that are rejecting that fate. The fact that a lot of people have opted out of the conventional labor market has some elements of a strike against nullification (“bullshit jobs”) that may be more broadly expressed as rejecting a “bullshit life”.
I see some young folks, like the buy-local counter-culture lot, that are definitely evolving new values, like a life of meaning .vs. hamster-wheels, and are walking their talk. I see it happening. Not enough of it yet, but the seeds are surely there.
We older folk would do well to seek out these pioneers, and find a way to offer them some encouragement.
Buy local. :)
Reminds me of this classic from the Onion, circa 1997:
Jean-Luc Godard just died by assisted suicide in Switzerland. He was 91. In movies every agonist needs an antagonist and the 60s and 70s filmmakers were clearly reacting to the their own older generation and the stultifying 50s. If current filmmakers are into comic books that period’s directors were into comics and Marx. Instead of celebrating pop culture, pop fueled their critique of the bourgeoisie. In his movie Weekend Godard depicted oh so middle class France as a giant traffic jam. In most films you see these days swell dwellings and other middle class appurtenances are a given. The class war is over and the meritocracy won.
Here’s suggesting it’s not so much lack of a future but lack of struggle that has much to do with the current creative deficit. The Beatles, those astonishingly prolific song writers, came from lower class backgrounds and took much of their inspiration from black American blues–again the music of poverty. With the West on the verge of becoming poor again maybe we will once again have a creative renaissance.
Speaking of Godard, and tangentially The Beatles, I recently learned that Godard had made a small film featuring the Jefferson Airplane playing an NYC hotel rooftop gig in November 1968. 2 months BEFORE the famous and legendary Beatles rooftop gig wrapping up the Let It Be sessions.
Happy Trails to you.
Call me old-fashioned, but I have never been able to get thru a Godard film without being either bored or irritated, or both. That’s if I got through them. Ditto Antonioni. It feels almost heretical to say so but even The 400 Blows left me cold. I’m afraid I’m with Orson Welles on the French (or really European) New Wave, with even the best of them merely ‘interesting’ or ‘diverting’ rather than great. You can respect them but they are hard to love. Not much laughing or crying involved. And I admire very much the work of many of those directors the polo-necked Cahiers du Cinema brigade despised, Julien Duvivier in particular. The animus seems to me to have a political and perhaps even an Oedipal dimension.
John Michael Greer’s novel Retrotopia suggests that this process is more like a natural law. He says that all art forms have a certain amount of “notional space” available, and after the space is full everything in that form is either derivative or just noise. The example in the novel is opera. He says “Wagner was right up against the edges of opera’s notional space, which is why his late operas are so exhilarating–you can watch him tiptoeing right up to the edge of noise and balancing there.”
This insight, such as it is, becomes a central part of the logic of the book, so I won’t expand in order to avoid spoilers.
Lots to chew on but like others in these comments I cannot accept that there is no startlingly new music out there.
I am tired of experts telling me things that are true regarding what comes out of CORPORATE CULTURE but music is so much more than what the suits are selling. No one from the ’60s or ’80s would listen to Senyawa and say, “Oh, same old same old.” They wouldn’t because when on earth would they have had a chance to listen to avant garde Indonesian music?!
There is an unusually high amount of recombinant music now. $75 Dollar bill in NYC is basically a jam band that’s been heavily influenced by Sonic Youth and Tuareg guitars. The London “trap” scene features several elderly Caribbean reggae artists reinventing themselves and jazz at the same time.
Unlike the earlier post-WWII period, everyone now is listening to everyone else and culture is mashing up at a ferocious rate. To be unkind, I have to wonder if Mr. Fisher is really all that confident that he can hear all the influences in modern music like the borrowed beats in almost everything.
I have been sorting a large music library for several years now. Not listening but sampling/sorting. It gives you different insights into music. I now understand what the musicians of my youth were saying when they talked about the music they listened to: they were borrowing heavily. That rock musicians borrowed from blues musicians is established but listening to pyschedelic music I heard riffs borrowed not just from India but also from Islamic culture and the Far East. As the children of Empire, British rockers and psychedelic tripsters had access to records from all over the world which is why the British scene exploded in the ’60s (the American scene was built on our own roots with much of country music being descended from British folk).
It’s all been mashing up our whole Boomer lives but this is an aspect of culture the suits simply cannot keep up with. So music for sale is getting boring? Odd, I’m listening to crazy amounts of music that feels very, very new.
This week’s finds:
Black Jesus Experience
Oh, my bad. This has a lot of traditional Ethiopian rhythms, not new at all.
Cosey Fanni Tutti – Delia Derbyshire_ The Myths and the Legendary Tapes (Original Soundtrack Recordings)
Oh my, Delia Derbyshire is old music. Surely this can’t be new.
Congo Natty – Music 4 Da Soul
Congo Natty has to be 100 years old, this can’t be new music!
Pink Siifu’s Gumbo just came out.
Hmm, this sounds a lot like Erkyah Badu. Yeah, nothing new here at all. And the Blvck Spvde remix of Nubya Garcia’s Inner Game is acapella music — THAT CAN’T BE NEW!
Challenge me on this. Whatever kinds of music you listen to, someone’s reinvented it. Sorry, no new notes, we’re still using the same ones but maybe a little differently. And if the music industry ever took its copyright jackboot off creative throats, it would get even more crazy.
I’ve speculated that Claude Debussy was inspired to compose after he listened to some musicians from the Caribbean who had wandered into a club in the environs of Paris.
Mozart definitely spent (according to his biographer Maynard Solomon) his early years as a prodigy composing symphonies in a style that was definitely derivative of the current Italian symphonists. And so it happened that Mozart did not reach his own definitive style in symphony writing until #28 (kv 200). He spent the first 10 years of his career working his way out of the current trends.
The lesson is that great musical artists often discover a style after experimenting with what they hear around them. Mozart of course, as a child, was under the heavy hand of a patronizing, overbearing father.
Apparently K-Pop is in love with Mozart and using his music as much as they can. From the Empire of the Mind: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IHz4fFOkaEs
Apparently K-Pop is in love with Mozart and using his music as much as they can.
 Ignoring the pretty visuals, that Empire of the Mind person is staggering banal, droning on and on — and framing Mozart in the dumbest American way as the guy in the 1980s Hollywood film with Tom Hulce — to make one single point that’s instantly obvious to anyone with ears and anybody who knows anything about Korea.
Which is: Korean music education is centered on the European classical musical tradition, not least that of the 18th century, which means their primary harmonic language often derives from the simpler harmonies and chord progressions of that era.
Whereas a lot of Anglo-American pop music — the sophisticated stuff, anyway — is created by musicians and arrangers whose primary education revolves around the more complex language of jazz harmony, which is basically French Impressionist harmony of the late 19th/early 20th century combined with the blues.
 Not incidentally, contemporary African-American gospel music is more harmonically sophisticated than much of Mozart and 18th century classical, though most church players are strictly ear players.
And I bring black gospel music up because however dead or stagnant the rest of the culture may be, as the original post above claims — and, yes, mall culture is no culture and, forex, Marvel movies are essentially just mining the creativity of Jack Kirby sixty years ago — there’s a living culture ongoing year to year in all those churches every Sunday morning, whatever may be the case in the rest of America.
For instance, check out how beat one, bar one of the verse starts on the flat 5 chord in this arrangement of ‘I Stood On the Banks of Jordan’, by the Reverend James Moore, and then everything that happens after that —
I Stood On The Banks Of The Jordan (Part I): Rev. James Moore, Live In Detroit
And this live (late) Aretha version of ‘Bridge Over Troubled Waters’ is simpler, but powerful–
‘Bridge Over Troubled Waters’ – Aretha Franklin, Live
I’m guessing you’re familiar with The Art of Noise but if not, The Art of Debussy is seventeen minutes of electronic homage from the late ’90s.
Agreed. You might have to dig a little bit more, but that is just like the news these days: the MSM is just the empire of lies, but there is always NC. Also agree about Senyawa as a good example.
I wonder how much of this phenomenon is related to the digitization and cloud storage of media. Leaving the corporatization and the “in the future you’ll rent everything!” aspects aside, simply losing the physical sites where media was bought, traded, borrowed, or consumed has got to have had some effect on the production of new, interesting, challenging, or groundbreaking art. I think of music stores, book stores, video rental shops, card catalogs and libraries where you could flip through index cards and wander the stacks as lost micro-climates for cultural exchange and production.
Interesting. Micro-climates. Are chat rooms the same excect you can’t accidentally walk by and look in the window? Yet.
Pop, folk, and midcult seem to go forward in surges. As I’m generally sort of out of it, I won’t venture to identify these surges myself, but those who are more involved can do it: between surges there is a sort of vacuity, but during a surge things happen very quickly. It has been said (something like) “There are centuries in which it seems only a day goes by, and days in which it seems a century is going by.” Something like that is what I mean. The underlying objective or material conditions contribute to those moments, but they probably don’t determine them.
Having lived around high tech audio, both at the consumer and pro levels
my whole adult life, I can say point-blank: analog/vinyl blows digital outta the audio water. I have so much music on vinyl, cassette, and CD, I can hear the difference on compressed/mp3 files. Music like any other art is subjective. I believe I actually lived through a Renaissance in popular music: 1950s-1990s. I have the tunes to prove it. Simple as that. :-)
Wonderful piece. I’m beginning to make a hobby of collecting popular magazines from the 1950s. What I see from titles as diverse as Argosy and the New Yorker is a loss of content (or just an outright loss) over the decades. Magazines back then were huge and extravagantly diverse and interesting by comparison with what’s available today. Why? Personally, I think it may have had more to do with how these publications were edited than how the audiences received them. Editors had the luxury of being far less connected and tuned in to popular culture than editors today are compelled to be.
A friend works in magazine publishing in NYC. He tells me the magazines have, or will be, gobbled up by private equity. Once they are, they are reduced to crude advertising platforms and lose any of the character that made them great.
I sort of inherited a subscription to natgeo(along with a lifetime membership) from my grandad.
I begged and bitched and threw fits (13yo) for one for Omni(scifi boondoggle of the hustler guy)
Mags arent made in that way any more, based on my limited exposure offline these days
OMNI was a lot of fun. My father was a big fan of Guccione’s products. When I couldn’t get my hands on Penthouse, I’d look at the salacious adverts in the back of OMNI.
Disco never died. It metamorphisized into techno and house, joined hands with hip-hop and rock and in the 2000/2010s became mainstream pop music.
On another front, top 40 playlists were created as a way to control any message in music. Some people, like the writer Alex Constantine, have traced it to CIA involvement. Can do reading on your own and be the judge of that….
Fun facts I learned in my days in the music business: Payola started becoming a huge part of major corporate labels’ budgets at one point as a way to prevent the rise of any independent/artists that would threaten market share. One really can’t buy hits, but they can buy market share.
Did you know it has always been perfectly legally to pay a radio station to play a recording? It just has to be presented that way: as an advertisement. As long as the track is played and it’s back announced as a paid promotion…perfectly legal.
And an important note by this writer that can’t be overstated:
“It’s no accident that the efflorescence of cultural invention in London and New York in the late 1970s and early 80s (in the punk and post-punk scenes) coincided with the availability of squatted and cheap property in those cities….”
And note where the musical and cultural inventiveness did continue to arise from at that point.
2022 Grammy show the award for Record of Year went to:
“Leave the Door Open” – Silk Sonic.
Peak nostalgia? Check the video asthetics. The colors, the clothes…the ashtray on the keyboard.
But it is refreshing to hear dynamics and key changes galore.
The preoccupation with culture is a backward looking phenomenon. Anything artistic we can do our future AI overlords will be able to do better. Our time as a dominant species is drawing to a close, and the engineered beings who inherit this world will create a new “culture” that will probably be unrecognizable to us. Species chauvinism is a dead end.
Who is the best chess player? Who is the best Go player? Extrapolate and understand.
What is “who”? Extrapolate and understand.
“The preoccupation with culture is a backward looking phenomenon.”
This is a cultural claim, in two senses. You are criticizing analyzing culture while a. being an embedded product of a cultural milieu and b. making a claim about culture in the abstract. You imply cultural claims are “backward” and, I assume, flawed. Therefore, by your reckoning, this claim is flawed.
“Anything artistic we can do our future AI overlords will be able to do better.”
AI do not create art. At best, the algorithms that drive them are coded with artistic input. AI do not have intent, inspiration, or creativity. Those are fundamental to art. Those are aspects of consciousness. AI will never be conscious.
“Who is the best chess player? Who is the best Go player?”
If there is no “best” X,Y, or Z, if I understand you to mean there is instead a continuum of ability ranging over time, then how can these overlords of yours be “better”? In other words, if a claim of “best” is arbitrary, why isn’t a claim of “better”? If the idea is that there could always, in time, be someone better and therefore no best, than there can always someone better than better. If the idea is there is a fixed point in time where there is a better than all others, that implies the best.
“Extrapolate and understand.”
“Anything artistic we can do our future AI overlords will be able to do better.”
AI do not create art.
Indeed, but trying to work out why is a frustrating and perhaps impossible endeavour. I watched and enjoyed the first two seasons of Westworld, the last two I endured, but it does wrestle with some of the implications of this question of the ultimate inability of AI to ‘be’ human.
The Ed Harris character comes to realise that the temporal nature of human life is what confers value or worth to it; that immortality is a trap, the prospect of eternal life removing the philosophical need for the sort of self-reckoning and self-knowledge that leads to ‘long dark nights of the soul’ as well as to the ‘sweet delight’ of humour – black or otherwise – but also to understanding, acceptance, fulfilment, closure, satisfaction… the stuff of human culture. A bloodless immortality means endless ennui leading to murderous nihilism, not nirvana, that’s the inference.
Then, when the robots have taken over, their leader is puzzled and eventually inflamed by the incapacity of her ‘perfect’ God-like humanoids to come to terms with their emptiness, their sympathy with and longing for the human. So far from setting them free from the humans who created and oppressed them, she finds them hankering for humanity. Brad Pitt as Achilles’ comment in Troy about the gods envying us because we’re doomed and can live every day as our last is apposite here.
Those perfect robots would be much better chess or Go players than us, but they are finally ‘property’, intellectual property I suppose. They are not mortal individuals, but immortal facsimiles. Underlying these ideas is a question that lots of sci fi (eg Philip K Dick, Ex Machina, several Black Mirror episodes, etc) has ruminated upon: is the organic physical nature of human consciousness and intelligence qualitatively different from that which may be achieved artificially? Can the firing of electronic synapses and ganglions ever match the electro-chemical activity our brains engage in to produce the unique cultural artefacts we enjoy? Not only could such circuitry produce, but could it really ‘enjoy’? Or could they produce culture which they could enjoy but which would be simply beyond our ken to appreciate, or even notice?
Part of Westworld’s and Ex Machina’s fascination is the way in which the ever more accurate facsimiles are driven by human sexual desires, particularly male fantasies of domination sans boundaries. I guess there will come a day when ‘sex dolls’ have graduated to something like the alluring robots in Westworld, but I have always thought that a genuine sexual response toward a robot, though possible with the application of some effort I suppose, would be impossible spontaneously, or maybe organically. We are animals; we may wear nice clothes and perfumes but we are always taking in and expelling matter, sweating, shedding skin, emitting pheromones and slowly decaying, and I wonder whether those intimations of mortality, those signatures of our human but also our mammalian physicality, while ‘icky’ in theory, are actually essential in practice – in the workings of desire for sure, but also in the creation of recognisably human art and culture.
It all boils down to sex and death!
Computers are and will always be based on logical arithmetical and algorithmic binary coding processes, running on electrons. These processes are generally well understood, even if specific ‘learning programs’ run beyond the immediate knowledge of their originators.
Animal life is based on DNA (physically) and runs on (often illogical, and certainly non-binary) ‘mind’. No-one has yet found out, or even put forward a credible theory of what ‘mind’ runs on, with or by. It is very unlikely to be electrons.
Additionally, there are severe logical arguments against the possibility of ‘materialism’ being a viable philosophy. (Such arguments can be readily found).
So the conclusion I draw is that it is very unlikely that coding running on electrons, no matter how complicated, can ever be conscious.
This is of course a very brief and incomplete overview.
Old people showing a misunderstanding of how culture has changed is hardly new. I could probably find a version of this piece written every 10 years going back to some caveman complaining that kids these days aren’t adding anything to cave paintings.
I’m 52 so hardly young. But I pay attention to what my kids are into and, as the song went, the kids are alright.
There is a such thing as cumulative effects…
UK-based. I don’t have an office, so I work in coffee shops in the morning and pubs at night.
The barristas and bartenders are generally in their 20s to early 30s, and whoever is on deck gets to choose the playlist.
Inevitably, they pick music from the 1960s through 1980s.
I pointed that some of the songs were 50 years old, that it would be like in 1960 listening to music from 1910!
“But the music was so much better then!”
Around seven or eight years ago, a research company (I could be getting the stats wrong, but the conclusions are correct – if anyone has the proper cite, please add) picked 100 top 40 songs from the last 50 years and played the intros to 500 millennials. Obviously, the researchers didn’t play every subject every intro. As I recall, the most recognized song, probably because it’s played at every wedding and appears in every romcom – “When A Man Loves a Woman” and number two was “Respect” by Aretha Franklin. The millennials only recognized TWO songs that had been recorded after the year 2000.
What happened in the music (and publishing and film) industry was that sometime around the late 1970s, early 1980s, accountants realized that these industries were populated by creatives who were absolutely clueless as to business models. Nevertheless, they were making fortunes.
The accountants thought, “If these financial dunces in small, scattered labels were making so much money, think how much more money could be made if we consolidate all these independent labels into semi-monopolies and introduce rational business practices.”
We know how that turned out!
All of sudden, any music once produced by people who created out of love, inspiration and the fire burning their bellies, suddenly wend its tortuous way the retrospective MBA filters in the hope of discovering something that was just like something that had previously proved successful.
The pinnacle of the nadir is algorithms that predict whether or not a song will be a hit are algorithms that do the job that A&R guys once did, resulting in the beige music now contaminating the airwaves and cyber streams.
Mikel above pointed one very true phenomena, can’t remember who said it, but to paraphrase, “All breakthrough art depends on cheap rent.”
I used to see the Ramones for $5 at CBGBs. Apparently the venue now sells $400 handbags.
All those innovative Big Apple venues are gone.
There is still, however, a fabulous indie music scene in London, with dozens and dozens of venues with live bands and cover charges from free to ten quid. Almost none of these bands will reach 10,000,000 streams on Spotify (the number of plays a band needs to earn $3,000), but, boy, it remains a thrill to listening to innovative music in tiny venue.
A young, ravishing, raven haired bartender who used to make me the best martinis ever while I respectfully cooed over her told me that she always looked forward to the oldsters and oldster-adjacents like me who came for happy hour because we tipped well but also because we played much better music than the kids who came in later. We played stuff from the ‘60s to the ‘90s. After we left around 7 PM, she said it was the same vapid pop-crap for the rest of the night until closing.
And the leather pants at CBGBs were 800$ as of a few years ago.
The future hasn’t been cancelled, it has moved to East Asia, the new economic center of the world. For me the real issue is “Which East Asian future?” Will it be politial regimentation a-la China, the boy band/north-south movie optimism of South Korea or the visual distopias that started with Mothra, came to fruition with Manga and gave us The Matrix version Koreatown Los Angeles?
The gay and trans Chinese and Japanese dance-club scene plus the Cosplay worlds and the Chinese kids’ “lay flat” response to the rat race may be the real wave of the future and can be found on the internet. They are something to behold.
Alianation has reached Asia.
Meanwhile the US literature and music scene has descended into 1950’s post-imperial Britain’s “Angry Young Men” of Kingsley Amis and Philip Larkin on one side with the Horatio Hornblower nautical tea-cosy novels on the other. Art? Have you been to any new US art exhibits lately? Agitprop. And the music? The Fugs meet The Laversion st Poets without the insight.
One thing that is striking is that when I was young, music from the 1940s and 1950s sounded almost antique. Yet hits from the 1960s and on still get a lot of play.
There’s one big and seldom grasped reason for that. Carole Kaye started having hits with The Beach Boys, the Ronettes and other acts playing her Fender Precision bass. Quincy Jones (Michael Jackson’s producer and Count Basie’s arranger) even said the Fender—the LA musician’s union logged all electric bass dates as “Fender” dates for quite some time—was what allowed the rhythm section to come up front so drummers could play as loudly as they wanna. And with Motown and Stax having non stop hits featuring the Fender, that’s where music irreversibly went. Hendrix would have had no way to play through his wailing Fender Strat and feedbacking Marshall amp stack over the top with a standup bass behind him without burying the bass and drums.
There’s also the adoption of multitracking and Fairchild compressors (the Motown and the Beatles secret weapon), but let’s spare everyone that digression which would still not eliminate the priority the Fender bass holds for turning the corner in recording sonics, mainly because those other technical developments let records to put the bass in your face.
I surmise Fischer mostly cares more about intellectual spiritual matters in perceiving aesthetic decline ranting while against what the kids are now doing. Frankly, from what little I’ve read of his, and this is disappointing since Anna and Dascha from Red Scare spoke so highly of him, regarding music critic he’s myopic and unperceptive— he seems focused on sociological issues and cares for little else—and has pedestrian tastes typical of punk and post punk era survivor. It’s undeserved to place him on the same plateau as the imminent Isaiah Berlin, Jacob Burckhardt, Hegel, or even Griel Marcus or Lester Bangs, regarding aesthetic developments, specialized or not. But, hey, if you get something from it, don’t let me steal your joy.
One final point. All that stuff about the Fender bass, it was purposed for one thing above all, to get people to dance. I, in all honestly, can’t think of one white music commentator who has given that more than the passing consideration it deserves.
But the electric bass ran into trouble in the age of tiny laptop speakers and digital renderings of sound.
Dissertations are written about how to get a good bass sound that can have clarity and punch and not trigger compressors on streaming sites or radio that can squeeze the overall sound.
The bass lines got sparser.
Also, Roland TR-808s &TR-909s, moog synths, etc. took over more of the bass frequency functions.
The styles are definately influenced by technology. Higher sampling rates becoming available have helped.
In the vinyl age, this was overcome by also by widening the grooves in the records. A vinyl master cut with a wider groove could handle bass frequencies without causing the needle to jump.
Hence the arrival of the dance club 12” single and artists putting fewer songs to each side of an album. From 6 – 8 tracks per side in the sixties to fewer tracks per side beginning in the 70s.
I have one laptop at home that is horrendous for listening to any style of music without hi-fidelity headphones. The bass frequencies are practically non-existent. My cellphone actually is kicking its butt in that area. The other laptop I have is actually more bass friendly without headphones.
So some people, not really taking this into consideration could be missing out on some of the intracies in newer recorded material.
Makes sense, yet bass guitars are common and glad to share the lower end with keyboards. Meet Me at our Spot is a great case in point. It blew up on TikTok due in great part due to a massive Fender Jazz Bass part. People ragged, via TikTok. In fact, on the original digital bass version–they simply did not like it–– and forced Willow (who of late has been using and playing bass guitar a lot) to release the live string band version because the feel was way superior. The people spoke out loudly. And there’s the continued growing popularity of bass guitar in Country music. Bass guitar’s demise is greatly exaggerated, as has been the case for guitars and live drums. Leave the Door Open makes that clear.
Since Carole Kaye effectively disposed of the standup from the charts, and no one who actually counted-––the people—shed a tear, massive bass has gone nowhere and it won’t until people stop dancing, which is never. Welcome to the bigger wider world of music where women still think a man playing bass guitar is incredibly sexy, and like to see another woman play bass because they identify with them. That matters incredibly like it or not. When it comes to music, women are in charge of what hits the charts. Just ask the Elvis, the Beatles, Prince and Harry Styles. And I like it like that. So let’s rock on, shall we?
Makes sense, yet bass guitars are common and glad to share the lower end with keyboards. Meet Me at our Spot is a great case in point. It blew up on TikTok due in great part due to a massive Fender Jazz Bass part. People ragged, via TikTok. in fact, on the original digital bass version–they simply did not like it–– and forced Willow (who of late has been using and playing bass guitar a lot) to release the live string band version because the feel was way superior. The people spoke out loudly. And there’s the continued growing popularity of Country music which almost always has bass guitar. Bass guitar’s demise is greatly exaggerated, as has been the case for guitars and live drums. Leave the Door Open makes that clear.
Since Carole Kaye effectively disposed of the standup from the charts, and no one who actually counted-––the people—cried a tear, massive bass has gone nowhere and it won’t until people stop dancing, which is never. Welcome to the bigger wider world of music where women still think a man playing bass guitar is incredibly sexy, and like to see another woman play bass because they identify with them. That matters incredibly like it or not. When it comes to music, women are in charge of what hits the charts. Just ask Willow and Harry Styles.
Not saying bass is gone. It just takes work to capture and transmit that fullness.
I’m also talking about especially capturing a heavier type of bass groove.
To capture the fullness of electric bass on the recording end you have the guitars, amps, compressors, etc. Then there is mixing and mastering where certain bass frequencies have to be cut to keep things from getting muddy and still maintain the punch.
On the listening end, you need the speakers/headphones up to the task of revealing the fullness.
On a personal note – I like to feel the bass, not just hear it a bit.
About those higher sampling rates now running everything, Noah Shiber (Drake’s main man) has made a career of trashing on lot fi(ing) the lower end and mids deliberately so there’s room above for Drake. Tech in music does not take a dialectic march towards a clear horizon. It like’s to zig and zag unpredictably.
I have one more nerdy musical musing.
You can’t talk about music without talking about the drugs associated with various genres/sub-cultures.
And that says alot about society, the global economic system, the geopolitics of war…
Of particular note is the flow of opiates after wars: WWII, Vietnam, Gulf Wars….
Looking at someone’s music collection can tell you what kind of drug is their preference if any. Maybe not with 100% accuracy, but with enough.
In broad strokes:
Classical – wine (lighter alchohol)
Reggae – weed
Punk/Heavy metal – speed
70s yacht rock – cocaine
Any type of psychedelic branded music – psychedelics
Dance genres – psychedelics & speed
Hip-Hop – weed & barbituates & E
Country – harder alcohol
Jazz – harder alcohol, weed, barbituates
Of course, with the musicians themselves, expect a smorgasbord of choices.
Wow this was very insightful. For sure there has been a paradigm shift culturally from the 60s-90s in the music scene, as well as in movies. The Doors, Led Zeppelin, CSN&Y, Hendrix–so many epic bands riding a musical crest. Then the new wave 80s came, Depeche Mode, Blondie, Sex Pistols etc were another epic wave of ‘new wave’ music. Then the 90s: house music, drum and bass, trance, the DJ scene w/ Paul Oakenfold, Tall Paul, Sister Bliss, Stacey Pullen etc. And then 2000 came, the dawn of the 21st century: no next wave! Zip. Zilch. Nada. Nothing of any significance, as this author alludes to. What came next? Taylor Swift? Justin Bieber? Lady Gaga? At most they seem like copies of Joni Mitchell or Madonna. For sure the skyrocketing cost of rents combined with the elimination of permanent jobs, replaced by temp agencies and ‘gig’ work off Craigslist has made it impossible to have the free time to be a musician as in the 60s in Greenwich Village or SF. You’re too busy struggling at various temp jobs and shit jobs just to pay rent. I think this is a deliberate feature of the ‘Reaganomics revolution’ of privatization and outsourcing of labor to China, etc. If you’ll notice another key feature of 21st century America is the attack on the arts and esp liberal arts: to study Fine Art!? Art History!? Scultpure!? Music!? Greek Philosophy!? You are attacked as a complete idiot to study these disciplines–and you will be punished by a life of shit jobs doing data entry, painting houses or office reception temp staff for having these listed as what you majored in on your CV. In the 21st century USA, arts and humanities are superfluous wastes of time better spent studying business marketing, accounting, engineering, or computer programming. Especially given the now astronomical costs of getting a uni education, your major MUST lead to corporate employment! To do otherwise is economic suicide. Not to mention many public schools nationwide have now simply eliminated music, art and drama courses altogether to cut costs and save money. The arts are always the first to go on the chopping block in USA. Accordingly how can a country which sees so little value in the arts produce great musicians, painters, writers etc? It can’t. And that’s why there is such a dearth of new talent, and that we still cling to the 60s-90s for quality music for example. And it’s the same in movies.
“Imagine any record released in the past couple of years being beamed back in time to, say, 1995 and played on the radio.”
Everywhere at the End of Time, by The Caretaker, manages to contradict and embody the retro-thesis simultaneously, by taking music from the 1930s and transforming it beyond recognition.
As to being trapped in the 20th century: after Nixon and Congress effectively ended the space program, where else did we have to go but in circles?
I might go at this discussion from a slightly difference cultural measuring stick, but hang in there …
So my dad worked at a national lab started as a follow on to the Manhattan project. One of his first projects was to be part of the team that designed, built, and ran, a nuclear powered ram jet engine. It was Project Pluto:
Project Pluto https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Project_Pluto
In 1968, the grandparents are visiting. As part of the visit, we all pile into the family truckster, and go to a uptown theater in Oakland to watch 2001 on a big screen. In that famous scene showing the Discovery One, my dad turned to me and whispered, “They stole our design!” And later, I heard more of the story – as a follow on to Project Pluto, the team had designed a nuclear power space ship.
I don’t think most people understand how much of the possible was lost when America turned away from a country doing big things like going to the moon, and turned to making billionaires. Strangely, and used here as a milepost (The Jackpot), one of the pop genres that does understand best what this change did to our future may be science fiction. It changed from the late 50’s and early 60’s being a future of mankind expanding into the solar system, to tales of a collapse Earth, done in by the failure of society to cope with it’s self generated calamities:
Jackpot trilogy https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Jackpot_trilogy
What we are living in today, is literally a period where society has resurrected “the monarch” except we call them oligarchs or billionaires. These people are slowly taking over and ruling where once the people did. And somewhat timely with the death of the Queen, unlike her, they feel no moral obligation to society, the take what they want, and do what they want.
Great post, Glen.
When I was in grade school, science fiction was in its heyday. I read every book Robert Heinlein wrote, and Isaac Asimov, and many others whose names I can’t remember.
The books said “optimism, capability, courage, effort … great times ahead”
I was all revved up for some space travel, and setting up a colony on the moon.
Some years later, after GM (makes vehicles) had purchased Hughes (makes space vehicles), I naturally assumed that it was time to commercialize space travel, and not long after I was sitting in an office at a USG major contractors’ office, and I told them I wanted to get on the team what was building those new space-ships.
Recall that there was a great deal of gov’t-private collaboration back in that day; gov’t underwrote a lot of commercial R & D, and used the cabal of favored contractors as procurement / delivery mechanism. So my request about team-placement wasn’t all that far-fetched.
Well, it seemed a reasonable thing to suggest during the interview, but, in fact, it really, really wasn’t. Really wasn’t.
“Can’t help you, Tom. You need to apply elsewhere”.
This was the first, and maybe one of the most profound cases wherein what I was “led to expect” was not at all close to reality. The dreams were just that; dreams. 70 years later, we still haven’t caught up to Heinlein’s basic stuff.
So, for a young kid, that was a hard fall to earth.
It was the first intimation that what we claim we are, and what we actually are…aren’t nearly the same.
Of course, I’m describing a personal, one-off experience, and trying to say “it was emblematic”. The likelier explanation is that I just wasn’t hire-worthy.
But the tone of our (U.S.) aspiration, of what we dared hope for, seemed to attenuate during the 60s. The Kennedys’ and MLK’s assassination, and the Viet Nam war really took their toll on our collective sense of confidence in ourselves. Then Watergate.
That’s why, I think, people lose it re: Elon Musk. Whatever your criticisms of him personally, the guy thinks big, and his teams accomplish a lot.
It’s really refreshing. Big Dreams Actually Happening.
I wish it would happen more often.
“The Present” is just a crazy human concept. Maybe neurotic for fear of no food nor shelter. A totally human construct. It doesn’t exist as something physically tangible. In German – my go-to language – “present” is the Gegenwart. That translates into “that against which we wait.” Maybe something like the “becoming”. A very slippery thing to grasp. And it agrees beautifully with the Chinese proverb about finding the trail – you only find it as you walk it. I think the missing ingredient is patience. Post-capitalist impatience. So. Let’s allow things to unfold.
unheimlich means uncanny according to DeepL
A non-arrival of a “real” future I’ll conjecture for the moment may be due to an unconscious apprehension of the probability regarding the likelihood that our future could end up wiped out? Don’t let’s forget the anti-nuke movement in the 70s. It taught a lot of liberals some scary stuff. Maybe we didn’t deal with it well. Maybe unconsciously we bequeathed to the young a fatalistic outlook?
I don’t get a feeling of the past with Adele. I get an almost metaphysical protest against what one can end up dealing with in relationships. Which to me is new in music, but scary. Whenever I hear her I just think that was written in a space I don’t want to be in. Age helps you avoid them eventually, but it could be only because you’ve finally been through them too many times? There are artists that have sort of, to me, provided wormholes to THE actual future. Early Coldplay. Some of Cockburn’s improvisations. Knopfler. Strange, strange and isolated but nevertheless dynamite releases from John Legend (2?). I’m not exposed to much, but pastiche can suffice if it’s Riff Raff doing “Dancing in the Dark” (even that phase of Riff Raff is now over?). And if it’s Gitano stuff from the late Paco, it’s fine as it is. The muse has held back somewhat on good new melodies in this century so far. Maybe s/he figured we should stop partying a bit and get down to brass tacks?
So true, so true, so true. You go to sleep listening to the Roundtable#8 zoom, and you wake up to something so revolting it gets you to seriously wondering what progressives need to do next to stem the tide of think tankery [serious thought in the middle of the night interrupts rest-withdrawal]. Yet the trials perhaps are what karma dolls out for “the good”? “Withdrawal” was a privilege. And if we go along not knowing how the underprivileged deal with things, or how “essential workers” deal with things…how are we ever gonna be focused and attentive enough NOT to buy everything related on a site like Open Democracy? (where the dude ended up a plant)
As far as a bad chip let’n loose the Minutemen goes, I’m glad there’s more respect now for Muslims. The noumenal realm feels close.
I also disagree with this article. There is a lot of stuff going on (I am on the edges of the Korean art scene) nowadays. It’s just that there is a lot more than Western pop and rock music, and more people know about music from other cultures nowadays. I also have nostalgia for the 80’s, and 90’s because I was buying vinyl, clubbing, and obsessively listening to music for all that time. The music from the 40’s and 50’s may sound dated to some ears, but there is also some amazing music from the past.
I just started djaying and I am constantly finding new and old music which I have never heard before, and which is amazing.
I’m not going to recommend anything because if you seek, you will find. Get away from the algorithms and just randomly look for stuff on youtube, or ask friends, or randomly tune into radio stations, or listen to stuff on bandcamp. And get out and listen to nature or the sounds of the city, or people talking, or go into a church, or temple or mosque.
We’re humans and we all make music and dance.
I agree about compression though. It’s really lowering the audio quality of music. Spare me the nostalgia for vinyl and cds and tape. They were as bad as mp3s. Nothing is better than live music.
> There is a lot of stuff going on (I am on the edges of the Korean art scene) nowadays
I confess to having become a K-Pop fan, or at least a respectful and enthusiastic listener. (Not a group fan, but of particular songs that I like, which I seek out.)
Technically extraordinary, hook-laden, amazing choreography, etc. Highly, even brutally disciplined; makes Motown look like kindergarten, which Motown was most definitely not. And a level of irony cuts the sweetness. These are adults singing, not kids; and highly accomplished athletes, regardless of the cuteness. Also shamelessly and joyously looting riffs and beats from everywhere.
It seems to me that it began as a xenophobic reaction by recording industry executives against non-Western influences starting to break through into the mainstream music culture back in the Napster era of 1999-2001.
Basically, a sort of overweening assimilationism took hold that rejected any concept of 21st-century syncretism in favor of just ruthlessly imposing the West’s (really, just North America’s) own pop-cultural legacy everywhere for fear of letting anything else leak through – past works being reliably free of such contamination (not really, of course, but xenophobic attitudes aren’t particularly rational.) Elevating quasi-tribute acts like Gotye and Lady Gaga was the farcical culmination of this trend.
It’s ratcheted down a bit of late but even K-Pop’s rise seems like a sort of grudging compromise (where’d all the J-Pop go, to say nothing of C-Pop, T-Pop, M-Pop, etc…)
Yes. I think you’ve hit on it. Plus, the main difference between 40’s, 50’s music and 60’s, 70’s is instrumental. Big band was trombones, saxophone, trumpet etc. while 60’s on was guitar, electric bass, fiddle. But we are still (despite break-ins from sitar etc) in the guitar era for popular music – i.e. US music.