No more heroes: how music stopped meaning everything

Technology and hyperanxiety have diluted the dissident power of pop music

Fans watch  Gang Of Four perform live on stage during the Rock Against Racism Red Rhino tour, at West Runton in  England, on  March 20th, 1979. Photograph: Virginia Turbett/Redferns

Fans watch Gang Of Four perform live on stage during the Rock Against Racism Red Rhino tour, at West Runton in England, on March 20th, 1979. Photograph: Virginia Turbett/Redferns

 

I haven’t been really and truly bored since sometime about 1997. Childhood was a horizonless sprawl of dead time and understimulated confinement, from which I sought relief in a succession of obsessions, pursued with the manic avidity peculiar to hungry young minds. It was in this spirit that I first engrossed myself in football and literature. In my teens another passion would join, and for several years outrank, these pursuits: music.

Things may play out differently for the generation born in the 2000s, inundated as they are with digital stimulation for much of their waking lives in those crucial formative years, compressing the psychic space for quiet contemplation and imaginative fancy, and perhaps even – who knows – diminishing the appetite for aesthetic stimulation. For my part, as someone born in 1981, I can say that it was boredom that brought me out of myself, and into the world via culture.

A corollary to this boredom was scarcity. Picking up the NME on a Wednesday morning was an event, because without it you were out of the loop. Album inlay cards were pored over like sacred relics, their artwork meticulously scrutinised. Objectophilia is a niche kink these days, but in the analog era it was the default. It wasn’t cost or market forces that changed that – it was the technological redundancy of the formats, along with the superabundance of cultural material in the new information age.

Social media enables young people to engage with culture and politics in all kinds of ways outside music. From the 1960s to the 1990s, music was about all there was

The end of object fetishism coincided with the end of scarcity, and it is surely no coincidence that there has been no generation-defining music scene since the 1990s. This is unequivocally a good thing, insofar as it suggests that young people no longer need to define themselves socially through the music they listen to. New genres such as grime and drill music have emerged in recent years, but they have not quite broken through to the mainstream. Pop culture, once monolithic, is now decidedly pluralistic.

If the pop culture of the 1950s onwards was premised on wealth – the modest affluence of having pocket money was the cornerstone of “youth” culture – its transcendent emotional pull was built on a kind of poverty: namely, the severely restricted access to the means of producing and disseminating media. It is an axiom of political science that fanaticism thrives on poverty – the kind of deep, obsessive engagement made possible by the near-total absence of other outlets for one’s emotional and intellectual energies.

Today, social media enables young people to engage with culture and politics in all kinds of ways that have nothing to do with music; from the 1960s to the 1990s, music was pretty much all there was. It seems likely that, in the broad sweep of cultural history, the period circa 1955 to circa 2000 will be a treated as a discrete epoch, and the cultish fanaticism that drove its successive countercultural waves – from Beatlemania to grunge, via punk, post-punk, New Romantics et al – will be seen as an analog-era curio. The regime of production and dissemination was the defining characteristic of the four-and-a-bit decades of its hegemony; the demise of that regime has led, ultimately, to the obsolescence of that particular iteration of pop culture.

One can acknowledge all of this while still admitting a pang of nostalgia for a time when popular music was a countercultural force. We live in highly politicised times, but that hasn’t really bled in to the music scene in any discernible way; music, as Jarvis Cocker once observed, increasingly functions as a kind of wallpaper. A spate of new books published in recent weeks explore the legacy of guitar music as an artefact of cultural memory: Jim Dooley’s Red Set: A History of Gang of Four, Memory Songs, James Cook’s memoir of the 1990s music scene, and DJ Taylor’s novel about the glory days of Beatlemania, Rock and Roll Is Life. It is hard to read any of them without being struck by how much things have changed in such a relatively short time. The same was true of one of last year’s most spirited debut novels, David Keenan’s This Is Memorial Device, which recounts with infectious, fanboyish zeal the exploits of a fictitious post-punk band in early-1980s Airdrie.

Keenan told me a sense of geographic remoteness was integral to the intense engagement he portrays in his novel: “I think when the horizon is lowered, as in Airdrie in the 1980s, as in my fantasy of it, then you are forced back on your own resources, and this energy has to come out, and regional variations – I like to call it ‘regional madmanism’ – were, in their possibilities at that time, the purest manifestation of taking the implications of art and music at its word, by believing in it to the point of surpassing its own original remit, through desperation and necessity, through being cut off and marginalised. That’s where the real breakthroughs take place, necessarily, off the map.”

Ahistorical engagement

The advent of the internet disconnected the listener not only spatially but also temporally, resulting in a mode of engagement Keenan calls “ahistorical” – the cherrypicking of bits and pieces from across genres and generations, commodified and divorced from their context. “This Is Memorial Device is elegiac, certainly, for a time and place and a culture and an era, that maybe now that we’re far away enough from it, we can begin to take seriously. But I mourn it no more, and no less, than the feral adolescents that produced some of the earliest cave art.”

Alex Niven, whose 2014 book Oasis’s Definitely Maybe situated that album within the sociopolitical context of mid-1990s Britain, agrees that the door has closed on an era.

“We are clearly in a post-countercultural period of some kind,” he told me. “I don’t really have any time for the counterargument, the sophisticated version of which says that music is still progressing by way of grime, underground techno, etcetera. The more banal version goes, ‘There’s plenty of great stuff out there, you just have to make the effort to find it.’ I don’t agree, partly because this seems to ignore the historical dimension of artistic production – the fact that music, literature, painting clearly develop across history, with troughs and peaks occurring at specific times.

“The late 20th-century counterculture circa the 1960s to the 1990s was a specific thing. You might want to call it a ‘renaissance’ or a ‘flowering’ or whatever, or you might want to look more prosaically at the material conditions underlying it. But it definitely happened and it’s definitely over now.”

I would tend to ascribe our age of hyperanxiety to the absence of social infrastructure, or indeed any kind of social security

Niven is sceptical about my suggestion that this is mainly down to the advent of the internet. “It’s just one material factor among many behind the demise of counterculture,” he says. “I tend to think that the 1960s-90s counterculture emerged out of material wealth. That is, near full employment, free education, cheap housing, technological advances, and so on. These are really the predicates of countercultural activity: squats, art schools, the security that comes with knowing you can change jobs or get ill and you’ll still sort of be okay.

“This mentality allows people to flourish creatively, and it’s obviously what we lack now in our age of hyperanxiety, which some might blame on the internet, but I would tend to ascribe to the absence of social infrastructure or indeed any kind of social security. The internet has compounded the atomisation of the neoliberal period, but it seems to me largely a symptom rather than a cause.”

A fan attends a April 1994 vigil in Kurt Cobain’s memory in Seattle, Washington, US. File photograph: Therese Frare/AFP/GettyImages
A fan attends a April 1994 vigil in Kurt Cobain’s memory in Seattle, Washington, US. File photograph: Therese Frare/AFP/GettyImages

The economic insecurity endured by millennials – particularly since the 2008 crash – is in stark contrast to the relative prosperity enjoyed by the baby boomer generation. If younger people enjoy unprecedented access to culture as consumers, their ability to participate as producers has, conversely, been commensurately diminished.

The cultural critic Juliet Jacques points out that the explosion of other areas of the entertainment industry over the past three decades – particularly the rise of video-gaming and the proliferation of professional sports coverage – is another important factor. Though largely apolitical, these pursuits do absorb considerable attention and emotional energy. She believes the independent music scene reached a creative saturation point, whereupon it began to recycle itself.

“The bands who became the most prominent within various countercultural scenes (Gang of Four, Joy Division, Public Enemy, etc) did so because they married a lyrical and social expression to sounds that hadn’t been made before, or a distinctive spin on sounds that were current, which is what made them so relevant.

“What gave their music a compelling sense of urgency was the sense that they were making music because they had to – because nothing in their culture represented them. The more those gaps were plugged, the fewer people felt that urgency, and eventually there was a shift from ‘We want to say/make this because nobody else will’ to ‘I want to be in an experimental group’ or ‘I want to make political music’, and that didn’t carry the same weight. Perhaps as a consequence, people go back to old bands or artists: because why bother with facsimiles?”

Music of the future

James Cook, whose Memory Songs recounts his time in the 1990s indie scene, agrees: “No one talks about the music of the future anymore. The reasons for this have been well-documented: nostalgia replaced the forward-facing gaze, resulting in diminishing cultural returns as yesterday’s pop was plundered.”

This chimes with Keenan’s observations about ahistorical cherrypicking; indeed, this transition away from the idea of each generation having its own scene or sound, in favour of a curated hotchpotch, is itself the closest thing that we’ve had to a musical zeitgeist in the past 20-odd years.

The novelist DJ Taylor, whose latest novel charts the adventures of a publicist for a fictitious Sixties flower-pop band called the Helium Kids, recalls that “in the late ’70s there were very few sources of info for the pop kid, not much more than the NME and John Peel. You followed a band in the way that you followed a football club – The Jam were ‘my’ group in the way that Norwich City were ‘my’ football club and Orwell ‘my’ writer. The result of the digital free-for-all is, with certain exceptions, that listeners engage with the track rather than the people responsible for it. It would be difficult for something like punk rock to happen again in the same way because the infrastructures – in this case print journalism, limited but exclusive and influential media – don’t exist to support it.”

It is telling that every aspect of The Libertines’ aesthetic, from their outfits to their sound, was unashamedly throwback

The narrative of Rock and Roll is Life is punctuated by affectionate parodies of music-industry journalism, gently skewering the artifice of the pop music hype machine. The NME, which in its heyday could make or break careers and hype a whole scene into existence, had slid into comparative irrelevance long before it ceased print publication earlier this year.

Throughout the 1990s the magazine had been tediously fixated with the idea that rock might be “dying”; it was not uncommon for the latest bright young hopefuls to be lumbered with the tag of “saviours” of rock. This angst was aggravated by the rise of other forms of music, notably hip-hop and electronic dance, which ultimately knocked guitar music off its perch.

By the time The Libertines sang of Boys in the Band in 2002, their celebration of groupie congeniality (“And they all get them out for/the boys in the band”) had a distinctly anachronistic flavour. They were probably the last guitar band that managed to inspire that kind of obsessive devotion, and it is telling that every aspect of their aesthetic – from their outfits to their sound, to their affected drawling about a lost “Albion” – was unashamedly throwback.

There are, of course, few archetypes more tedious than that of the ageing rock fan lamenting the decline of “real” music. Not just because there’s often a racial tinge to such complaints – white guitar bands are presumed to have an authenticity lacking in other genres and demographics – but also because they are premised on a fundamental misunderstanding of, and overinvestment in, pop cultural forms that are inherently ephemeral and destined to fade.

What has, however, undeniably and irreversibly changed is that music has ceased to be the go-to locus for countercultural impulses, be they political or aesthetic in nature. When people look back in 100 years’ time on pop culture’s brief analog phase, it will seem strange that the two had ever been so closely intertwined. The digital revolution may well have diluted the dissident power of pop, but it has also revitalised the broader counterculture in myriad ways, and we are better off for it.

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