Category Archives: Music

cultural fracking / “indie sleaze”

Nothing is more eyerollingly contemptible than someone else’s nostalgia, for the very obvious reason that—d’uh—there were better things to be nostalgic about when I was young.

The above, for the avoidance of doubt, is meant to be read as deeply ironic, but there’s also an element of truth to it. This has become very apparent over the last week or so, with the tidal surge of the ‘indie sleaze’ concept gurgling up through the cultural sewer system.

I’m going to assume you already know what I’m talking about, here, because I’m a writer and theorist with a blog and not a news site; if you’re not aware of the ‘indie sleaze’ memeplex, then the article at tQ I’m about to cite heavily will probably explain it sufficiently for you to get what I’m on about. But I hazard that if you’re not yet aware of it, you’ll likely not care much for having been made aware of it, at least in the specifics; you might find the abstract points I make below to be of interest, but then again, you might not. Caveat emptor, innit.)

(ETA: have just noticed that the URL for that tQ piece includes the phrase “Mandela effect“, but the article doesn’t mention it by name at all; I wonder what, if anything, got left on the cutting-room floor?)

So, yes—Daniel Dylan Wray comes in early in his piece with an observation that’s older than either of us:

Nostalgia and the 20-year cycle are common in music. It’s no big surprise that a bunch of people pushing 40 start getting a bit warm and mushy remembering when they were 23 and full of pills and Red Stripe while listening to Soulwax. It’s human nature. It’s nice to remember good times with old friends.

(It’s a mark of my being that little bit older still than Wray that the mention of Soulwax makes me feel less warm-and-mushy and more decline-and-fall… because I recall Soulwax as a vaguely interesting band who threw it all away by spearheading that immensely tedious yet undeniably popular mash-ups phenomenon. And so it goes.)

But anyway, to put it in a capsule, ‘indie sleaze’ is a label suddenly being used to gather and package curated images and vibes (but, crucially, very little actual music) associated with the Noughties indie boom. According to Wray,

… there appears to be little else going on other than some people wallowing in the past while trying to convince themselves that it, or maybe even them, possesses some sort of contemporary relevance. As though if one keeps saying that something is happening enough times then it will eventually become true. It feels like the signs of a creeping millennial midlife crisis. Some of the stuff being posted under the indie sleaze hashtag already indicates a seemingly inevitable generational shift into ‘it was better back in my day’ territory. The next generation of Weller haircut mods or acid house dads are now seemingly upon us.

Well, quite. “Same as it ever was,” to quote a band from the generation before mine, that said generation quoted at me relentlessly; this is not a new thing. Wray consults an academic specialist in nostalgia to get some insight, or at least some side-sight, on this thing.

“There’s two ways of looking at it,” Routledge tells me. “The cynical way is that these are totally distorted memories. The more positive side is that as humans it’s really important to have a story arc, a narrative. It is kind of like filmmaking and the reality of the past is like the raw footage. Well, that doesn’t make for a good movie. What makes a good movie is when you go in there and you find the pieces that you think tell the story you want to tell. So I don’t think it’s total fiction, that footage is there right? But where it becomes more creative, and more imaginative, is how we make editing decisions.”

My bold, there, to highlight what is probably a fairly obvious point, in order that I can deliberately overstate it in a way I’ve done before: all narrative is curation. Yes, literally all narrative, making no distinction by media, or even between fiction and non-fiction: telling a story is about reducing the huge volume of stuff and events in the world (imagined or real) to a coherent and curated selection that thereby imposes meaning on a a volume too vast for our meaning-making capacity to handle.

It is thus very much in that spirit that I will note that Bill Gibson concretised Routledge’s metaphor in the maguffin of the very pertinently-titled Pattern Recognition… which, just to compound the synchronicity, is a cultural phenomenon roughly contemporaneous with the raw material from which the ‘indie sleaze’ aesthetic is being lashed together. Which brings us neatly to:

The whole thing just feels like such a weird, tenuous, desperate grasp for something that isn’t there. A bit of a front. One that people are using to mask the reality that the music they like, or make, has been deeply out of fashion for some time and are jumping on an opportunity to convince themselves its back.

What’s really odd about it is just how immediately people have swallowed it up and digested it without question. “It’s fascinating,” says Routledge of it all. “I wonder if it becomes like a self fulfilling prophecy? Like the buzz just makes it come back? Like a viral marketing campaign.”

The claim of the upper paragraph there is, I think, a bit of generational sour grapes on Wray’s part—and I say that without meaning to judge him harshly for it, because my identifying it as such is totally a function of remembering a number of times when I’ve felt exactly the same about some cultural thing-of-the-moment. Nonetheless, I think that assumptions of bad faith of this type are best not left unquestioned… and Routledge’s response starts getting to the meat of what I think this is really about. He continues:

Why has it taken such hold? (At the time of writing fresh articles are still appearing daily from major titles.) And why now? “I’ve looked at this in the context of music, film and fashion,” says Routledge. “And it’s around this age, late 30s and early 40s, that this generation gets the reins of power over culture. What I mean by that is: who’s calling the shots at the film studio, who is the editor of the magazine? That’s when these people are in charge. Obviously they’re not in charge of the bottom up organic cultural movement but they’re in charge of the discussion of it. So I think that’s part of the cycle – who gets to decide what gets the green light.”

Routledge is half-right here, I would argue, in that yes, the age cohort he’s describing is dominating the discourse on the topic, but not because they’re “in charge” of anything. Rather, it’s because the algorithmic systems have surfaced a connection between that cohort’s perfectly natural nostalgia, the “raw footage” of the era in question, and—crucially—an audience which might be formed into a viable (if momentary) market. A market for what, though—new music? Fashion? Hot-take articles? All of these, and none of them; a market for attention, first and foremost. This is an emergent phenomenon in which no one—not even those who have programmed the algorithms that underpin (what remains of) the web and social media—is truly in control of. Those algos identify and amplify tiny seismic quivers of attention, just like an amplifier amplifies the tiny signal from a guitar pick-up… and that guitar pick-up then catches a bit of the amplified signal and sends it back round again, and then, well, you all know where this metaphor goes (particularly if you’ve ever had the misfortune to hear me play guitar).

The question of the temporality—the twenty-year cycle—is interesting, but that predates the internet by a long distance, so I think we can ascribe that to the nostalgia circuit that Routledge is talking about, something that existed in earlier, less gain-y iterations of the cultural amplification system. (Sorry, but I’m doubling down on the guitar feedback metaphor, partly because it’s apropos to the particularities of the story, but mostly because it’s the illustration of runaway positive feedback that’s most easily identifiable to the largest number of people without having to get into Systems Theory 101.) What’s unusual here, if anything is unusual, is the rapidity of the response (so, the gain of the amplifier) and the shallowness of the source material (so, the low level of the signal, which correlates to the sensitivity of the pick-up).

Wray gets this, or almost gets it, I think, but then pivots away from the deeper implications:

Obviously this whole thing is ridiculous and seems to be little more than an exercise in SEO. Which is fine as fashion and trends are supposed to be ridiculous from time-to-time, and the era of so-called indie sleaze certainly was. Whatever happens in the fashion world with indie sleaze (and I’m sure it will continue to be a thing while the right people are claiming it is a thing) remains separate to the discussion in question here because you can’t consciously replicate a youth culture movement, even if you want to. They are, in essence, born from the very pure and potent power of naivety.

Yes, it is exactly an exercise in SEO, but the point is that there’s no real causal chain, no one who can really be said to have started the exercise—not even the person who started the ‘indie sleaze’ aesthetic curation process. There are dozens, maybe even hundreds of such aesthetics being curated all over the place right at this very moment; it’s only when the attentional pick-up passes over one particular string, vibrating away in the seething quantum void of culture, that the sound gets heard, and the sympathetic resonances start up.

Now, sure, the movement of the pick-up—or rather pick-ups, because there are many agents doing this sort of work, some for money, some for pleasure, some for a mix of both—is directed to some extent. And also, sure, the question of whether the resulting note is sweet enough (or fuzzy enough, or whatever) to appeal to enough attentional agents that the pick-up is held in place for long enough for the note to ring out, that’s a function of cohort nostalgia, as Routledge notes above… but I think it may also be a function of the neophilia of another, younger cohort. Because while there’s some money to be made out of selling people’s youth back to them all over again, there’s not enough to really sustain that note over time; for that sustain, you need to use the nostalgia circuit as the pre-amp, and then shove that boosted signal through the power-amp that can drive the speaker cabinet. And the power-amp is, and always has been (since the 1950s, at a guess, though possibly before) the hunger among young people for some alternative to what’s already on offer in the culture surrounding them. That’s what the Noughties indie boom was at the time; it’s what the various things-called-indie around the end of the 80s and the start of the 90s were (which is to say, the sounds of the 60s rehashed for a generation who had only heard the banal and bowdlerised stuff successfully recuperated by capital in the intervening years).

It is, in short, what friend-of-the-show Jay Springett calls cultural fracking… and much like its namesake, it is driven by a deep imperative of extraction in a system which, for all its uncritical worship of the notion of “innovation”, struggles to actually do anything new at all. All it can do is amplify a signal it stumbles upon. But because the gain of the resulting amplification has become so high, and the sensitivity of the pick-ups so refined, and the number of people trying to make a buck by waving the pick-up around in hope of finding the Next Big Thing has become so vast, there’s hardly any space for a new and genuinely novel signal to develop. So it’s new bottles for old wine, over and over again.

(This, incidentally, is one part of my enduring beef with the notion of “innovation niches” in transition studies; the observation that novelty emerges from niches is almost tautological in its obviousness, but the assumption that novelty might therefore be “fostered” by seeking out niches and “managing” them is business ontology at its very finest, and also serves to ensure that no niche is left alone long enough for any substantive novelty to develop.)

Ugh… I felt sure when I started this post I had a more substantive point to make, but it seems my argument is basically “OMG u guiz this is capitalism plus infrastructure!!!1”. Which is at least consistent, I guess? So regular readers (those who haven’t long since clicked away elsewhere) may like to think of this as a case-study, which will perhaps be referred to (and made better use of) at some later juncture.

(Alternatively, you may prefer to put it down to procrastinatory displacement activity while working from home on a day of astonishingly foul weather. These two interpretations are not mutually exclusive.)

organ donation

Trying to get back into a proper working groove this morning, as there is (long-past-deadline) writing to be done; thus trying to purge myself of a deeply cursed earworm. (Bowling for Soup, thanks for asking. No idea how that fucker got in there.)

Stoner-space-doom it is, then—more particularly, Lowrider’s “Ode to Ganymede”, from 2020’s excellent Refractions:

The bit at 3:50 where the Hammond clone comes in to take a solo? They played an extended version of this joint when L____ and I saw them in Stockholm back in November last year, and I don’t mind saying that I just about went and lost my shit completely at that point in the tune.

(There are also some rather idiosyncratic deep-filtered synth blorbles elsewhere on this album, whose restraint is both uncharacteristic for the genre and perfect for the material. That the keys guy was a little Michel Foucault look-alike tucked away at the edge of the stage, working with a band who very much looked like the denim’n’patches stereotypes you’d expect from this sort of stuff, only added to the magic IMHO.)

I can’t remember a time when the Hammond has actually been a fashionable instrument within my lifetime—though I recall it having a niche-retro appeal around the time Big Beat peaked in the late 90s; anyone remember the Propellerheads? But there’s something about it that has always called to me, and hearing it in the context of heavy, sludgy music like this seems to explain that appeal. The long heritage of Deep Purple, I guess? Whatever. Turn it on, crank it up.

music doesn’t matter so much (and that’s ok)

[ Editorial note: this is an essay I wrote in 2014 for the last weeks of sadly defunct rock’n’metal blog Demon Pigeon. I’m repubbing it here today in response to this piece at Louder Than War, which not unreasonably laments the disappearance of a sort of music fandom which, even in my own personal golden age of the 1990s, was already starting to slip away.

I have not edited this afresh after digging it out of the archive, and I would almost certainly write it in a much less Extremely Online tone were I to try to tackle the same questions today. Note also that circa 2014, Sp*tify and its ilk were still comparatively small beer, and I had yet to lose my entire digitised collection of albums to the mechanical failure of a HDD that I stupidly hadn’t backed up. But the basic argument still holds, I think… and at some point, said argument will hopefully become a thread in the long rebuttal I’ve been planning to write ever since I read this Frank Geels paper, which distills everything wrong about the man’s theory of sociotechnical change, and combines it with the unmistakable spoor of someone arrogant enough to wander into a field where his usual superficial historical bluffing just can’t save him.

Anyway, yeah—it’s a long one. I hope you enjoy it. ]

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Over the last five years or so, I’ve come to the conclusion that music doesn’t matter like it used to, and that it doesn’t matter that it doesn’t matter.

The image that drove it home was a poster for some student shin-dig, an “iPod disco” – a night out where everyone goes to club with their own music player, and dances to their own beat as heard on their headphones. How utterly neoliberal is that? You couldn’t make a better metaphor for individualist consumerism if you tried. Music as wallpaper, a domesticated and utterly internal experience, rather than the communal channel of experience and story that even two hours of cheesy hard house in a backstreet Sheffield flea-pit manages to convey… despite seeming to privilege how much music matters to the attendee, the iPod disco does exactly the opposite: it privileges how much the attendee matters to themselves. And I consider this to be emblematic of a more general (if less extreme) decline in the importance of music as a central plank of youth cultural identity, at least in the UK.

On one level, that sounds ridiculous: you’re saying music doesn’t matter anymore? Now, with music more ubiquitous, accessible and diverse than it ever has been before in the history of humankind? How could it not matter?!

And sure, music still matters; it’s a crucial layer of cultural topography. But it’s not the dominant channel of subcultural ideas any more; it’s just one channel among many, all of which are busily being subsumed into the metachannel, otherwise known as these here internets upon which I am writing to you.

But before the internet, music was the internet.

Allow me to explain.

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First of all you, need to think of “the recording industry” as a system, as a medium; step back from the actual components of the machine – the radio stations, record companies, recording studios and record stores – and think purely in terms of function. Alongside magazines, pop records were the first medium explicitly marketed at the then newly-minted demographic of The Teenager; recordings had been sold before then, of course, but they were a less ephemeral sort of cultural product; albums that curated serious art by serious artists were marketed to collectors and connoisseurs. The 7 inch single was a way to make a fast buck out of the fleeting tastes of these strange new Teenager creatures. As history shows, this market expanded incredibly fast, and sideband channels of marketing and publicity sprung up around it; the business learned how to shape the tastes of its audience by carefully curating the novelty to which it was exposed. At the same time, the business became increasingly infrastructural as it expanded. This is unavoidable, because it is functionally similar to a telecoms company: it’s in the business of delivering messages to paying subscribers, and once the volume of messages becomes significant, it’s all you can do to keep on top of the logistics. Worrying about exactly which messages the subscribers want becomes mere detail; so long as the demand is there, you’re happy and making bank, but you’ve gotta keep those pipes flowing. A corporation is an economic entity, remember; it doesn’t have (or need) the capacity to care what it’s selling, so long as it’s selling it and making money.

But the machine doesn’t run without that demand, so the infrastructure had to be fed with novelty by the “creative” side of the business, the managers and A&R people, promoters and pluggers and hustlers of every stripe. Meanwhile, the first generations of pop listeners reached an age where they’d started their own bands; these are the first bands to have grown up believing that there could be music aimed specifically at them, at young people in their world. No surprise, then, that when they picked up their instruments they found they had things they wanted to say – things that no one would let them say anywhere else, on the radio, on television, in the newspapers. It was a generational backchannel, if you like; a peer-to-peer medium where youth could speak to youth. At no time in your life are you ever more hungry for new stories and new ideas than when you’re a teenager; outside of books and magazines (the latter of which were increasingly aligned with the music business anyway), music was the most likely place you’d hear the shibboleths of your generation spoken aloud. Rebellion, lust, desire, frustration, and the sheer shattering thrill and terror of being young and alive – to know someone else felt the same must have been an incredible liberation after the bland suits’n’boots orgman conformity of the post-war years. And while there was some money to be made from peddling saccharine conformity, the market turned out to be hungry for the forbidden topics – which was just fine for the recording industry: the forbidden could flow just as smoothly through the pipes as the wholesome. Hell, sometimes the forbidden flowed better, especially when someone outside the system tried to impede it; then as now, nothing heightens demand like a banning.

So maybe you can see what I mean now if I say that the early pop recording industry was like a very asymmetrical internet for youth, where a limited few (by the good graces of the infrastructural side of the business, who could make a buck from it) got the chance to publish new ideas and stories, and the majority could access and (to a limited extent) share those messages around. This is the era of the newly electrified Dylan, the early Beatles and Stones, the British invasion, all that stuff. The system is biased against certain sorts of message, of course, and in some cases very strongly; it’s far from an ideologically flat marketplace. But nonetheless, there’s more levity here than elsewhere, and the very narrowness of this much-desired channel makes it very lucrative indeed, especially as the wider world of business begins to recognise the power of the Teenaged pound, and the utility of an established hot-line to its most active and willing consumers. However, with a firm hold over access to the means of (re)production, the industry could maintain a broadly conservative control over the general tone: when the pipes are flowing fast, you want to avoid riling the regulators excessively. Only trouble being, the more successful your artists become, the more likely they seem to be to start cocking a snook at the establishment… and you don’t want to entirely stamp on that, because it’s so bloody lucrative, wot?

Around this time, the capabilities of recording equipment and studios were also expanding rapidly, and the costs of getting records out into the market were falling, lowering the barriers to new contenders for the still small but ever-expanding roster of artists with access to the medium, plus new, smaller players among the record companies, piggybacking on the now predominantly infrastructural distribution side of the business. Music mutated its way through a myriad of forms, but the real Cambrian explosions come with the arrival, from the late 70s onwards, of affordable electronic instruments and home recording equipment, and the arrival of consumer-grade home duplication systems – the miniMoog and the cassette recorder, in other words, which had a significant part to play in the emergence of (post-)punk and electronica, and paved the way for the synthesiser-drenched 80s, the rave explosion, 90s grunge and alt-rock and everything else.

But it’s the ability to record and duplicate at home that’s important if we’re thinking about music as being a medium, because this is the point where the asymmetricality of access starts to trend toward the symmetrical: all of a sudden, true peer-to-peer transmission is possible (albeit slowly, with considerable loss of quality, and at not insignificant opportunity cost), as is cheaply obtaining and sharing the messages of “official” artists without recourse to the official channels. I reckon this technological shift has as much to do with the expansion of forms and styles of the late 70s and beyond as the sociopolitics of the time; it’s not just that there was so much more experimentation going on, it’s also that the experimenters could create work and disseminate it cheaply, as well as being increasingly able to bypass the gatekeepers of the medium and connect directly with audiences.

[ Editorial note: I had linked here to a page on the since vanished or otherwise moved website of some consultancy or other, using the anchor text “Does this rhetoric sound at all familiar?”. So please just imagine I’ve linked to some example of cynical corporate techno-optimism that fully supports and deepens my argument, OK? ]

So the industry lost some of its control, but gained from yet more growth in the overall market; so what if there were more bad messages in the pipe, so long as there were more messages? And while it got increasingly cheaper and easier for consumers to record and duplicate, the business still had the lion’s share of the power when it came to high bandwidth distribution, which allowed it to co-opt smaller channels once they reached a point where they need to scale their business up and onto the established infrastructures to keep their margins viable. Sure, there’s pirate radio, mail-order 7”-single clubs from marginal labels run out of someone’s shed, pirate radio stations, but that’s all little league shit; if you want the big reach, you need the big pipes, and if you wanna use the pipes, you gotta deal with the big boys… and when you do, they’ll take up your niche and commercialise it quicker than you can say “UK grime was once a viable and genuinely interesting music scene”. It happened to punk, to synth-pop, New Romo, C90 indie, to every successive sub-wave of the rave explosion, to grunge, Britpop, everything; as soon as a new message or idea hits the infrastructure, it’s everywhere, it’s ubiquitous, it’s over. This is why we talk about “selling out”, but it happens at a much higher level than individual artists, and it’s a two-way process. The infrastructural core of the business has to suck in novelty from the outer edges in order to fuel the machine and keep the pipes flowing; it’s like a black hole, in a way. Or maybe a sarlacc pit.

But the bigger the black hole, the greater the surface area of its event horizon, meaning the marginal ecosystem of independent artists clinging onto the edges of the infrastructure; so many voices out there, so many new stories! I remember being a teenager in the early 90s, with music being the only way I could gain access to any view of the world that wasn’t seen from what I now recognise as a white British middle-class perspective; it was the only place I could hear about the sort of politics that mattered to me, the only place I heard the truths that elsewhere went unspoken, the only place where lives that felt like my own were narrated. (Well, there were novels, too, but who reads those anymore, amiritez?) It was a crazy time – though I suppose the period during which you become an adult always looks like that, whenever you’re born.

The 90s also threw up the internet, the metamedium which would go on to subsume all other mediums, but it would be a long time before enough people had it that anyone could guess what it’d be good for. So it kinda bubbled along as a rather obscure channel-of-subcultural-backchannels until bandwidth and baud rates and processor speeds got to the point where Napster could happen.

At which point all bets were off.

As we now know with hindsight, the recording industry either hadn’t seen this coming or had chosen to ignore it; indeed, there are big sections of the industry only now slipping out of the denial stage and adapting to the new landscape. But everything changed once the opportunity cost for finding and duplicating a song and sharing it with someone became effectively zero; suddenly those messages were multiplying like gremlins in a swimming pool, pouring through a whole new set of pipes, under a whole new set of rules, beyond reach or control. Owning the recording industry’s manufacture and distribution infrastructure was suddenly an expensive liability… and the nature of the new distro channels was that it made your product laughably easy to duplicate infinitely, with no significant loss in quality.

I think this is where our relationship with music really began to pivot, because suddenly access to the music you wanted needn’t be a matter of expense: you could just have it, whether streamed or torrented or ripped or whatever. Music – not just contemporary music, mind, but increasingly the entire corpus of recorded music, everything that’s still capable of playback and redigitisation – became a resource, a commodity, an ocean of sound that our access to the internet allowed us to draw from effortlessly, without friction, and over a wider selection than was even conceivable beforehand. Yes, you still choose your music – but you choose it lightly, spoiled by choice. It’s not a hoarded pocket-money purchase, a long-anticipated mail-order CD of some obscure album that your local HMV didn’t have on its database; it’s a coat plucked on a whim from an infinite coat-rack. What do you want to wear today?

And hey, why not – this is not a bad thing. It’s just the way things are… and as many bad things as there are about the world and about the internet, I don’t think this is one of them. Nor is this one of those “OMFG music is DEAD these modern bands SUCK and you should all get the hell off my LAWN” sorta essays, either; music’s definitely not dead, it’s alive like kudzu, soundtracking our workdays as much as our playdays, thanks to tiny technology and better batteries. Music and musicians aren’t disappearing anytime soon; sure, it may be harder to secure the sort of mid-list careers that album bands could have in the 70s, 80s and 90s, but that’s because the labels can’t play the old “throw shit at the wall and see what sticks” approach to A&R any more; they don’t have the monopoly over distribution or promotional channels any more, so they can’t stack the deck so easily in their own favour. They were gamblers in the golden age, taking a chance on dozens of bands in the hope that one would be the new Beatles, Led Zep, whoever; it was a poor method, but it was the best one they had. (And if the rock biogs are to be believed, it could be quite a fun process, provided you didn’t let it kill you.)

But don’t believe the hype about the music industry being in decline. Far from it; it’s just abandoned the old infrastructural business model and merged with the TV and Hollywood conglomerates, getting into the “content” game, which is a game of stories within stories within stories, of which music is only one type among many. But selling music itself is a dead scene for anyone operating outside the Long Tail; soon as something’s in sufficient demand, piracy takes care of the supply problem for you, and leaves you out of pocket. You only avoid this by being obscure… and if you’re obscure, you’re not expecting to make any money from selling records, anyway, except as exactly the sort of connoisseur’s collection-piece that recorded music first got sold as: high-weight vinyl albums of obscure Williamsburg drone-pop quartets. These are artefacts, treasures; their value does not lie purely in the music that they encode. This is the last bastion of music really mattering to people like it used to: obsession, the expense of time and money. Try rewatching High Fidelity; it was always a little satirical, but now it looks like a send-up of the doomed relics of a by-gone era, twisted man-children angsting over their grown-up Pokemon collections. Defining yourself by the physical albums you own – how limited an idea that seems now! (If only because, well, shit – who can afford a spare room for the vinyl now the bedroom tax is in, eh?)

You want the proof that music doesn’t matter? Look at the charts. Sure, they were always topped off with obvious pop puppets, but now even they are carefully groomed and manufactured – in public, and at great length, as part and parcel of the whole spectacle – long before they ever release any actual tunes one can buy. And when they are released, they’re a sideshow, a vestigial legacy-mechanism by which you get the act to chart, and thus to be talked about more. The money in pop music nowadays is all in using it as the honey coating on bigger and more easily monetised media spectacles like television or cinema, or as a demographic shorthand in advertising material. Simon Cowell’s exploitative franchises have made him many fortunes, but hardly any of that came from record sales: it comes from the ad slots that appear around his programs, from the licenses to reuse his formulae in other territories; he’s not selling music, he selling the idea of selling.. Music’s just the scent of fresh-baked bread piped out from the front door of his underground-railway-themed sandwich shop, so to speak; its job is to get you in through the door.

(This, in fact, is not that far away from the old Tin Pan Alley model of the early 60s, or Pete Waterman’s “hit factory” model of the 80s; the only difference is that now it’s easier to monetise the artist selection and development process than the resulting musical product.)

However, there’s masses of other stuff going on, little subsubgenres and scenes of all sorts popping up all over, outside the dominant channels of promotion; how can I say music doesn’t matter when more people are making it or going to listen to it than ever before? But at the same time, there’s a sense that everything’s been done before, everything’s been said already. Caught in the atemporality of postmodernism’s end-game, all that’s left to us is quotation, pastiche, mash-ups and covers and remixes. The possibility of newness is nowhere to be seen.

To repeat: music still matters, but it matters in the abstract, as one aspect of the sensorial tapestry that is our cultural lives. It’s not a lifeline like it once was; there other channels where youth can speak to itself, even if they’re increasingly clogged with the detritus of capital and commerce. It doesn’t have to carry all the weight of our hopes and fears any more, or our politics, our dreams of futurity; there are other ways to make the world hear us, and while they may not be much more effective, they’re surely no less so.

(And maybe I’m wrong, and a few miles away there’s some urgent new musical subculture coalescing in some grotty little venue, the first true Next Big Thing of the Internet Era, set to blow people’s minds and give them a star to steer by. I wouldn’t be sad to see it; hell, I’ve spent years watching hungrily for it. Put me out of my misery, y’know?)

But ultimately it doesn’t matter that music doesn’t matter so much, because the internet subsumed the recording industry, absorbed that systemic function into itself, perfected it, balanced the asymmetry (a bit). Oh, it’s no utopia, no matter what Silicon Valley and its boosters may claim to the contrary, and there’s a lot of work to be done before we’ve shaped the internet into something that serves us all instead of just a few. But even so, the messages are still getting through, whatever the platform, whatever the medium… and it’s never been easier to send your own message back out there and see what happens.

And that’s what always mattered about music in the first place.

(self)creation stories

It’s probably just a function of my age, and the associated movement of my generational cohort into what it is no longer possible to depict to ourselves as anything other than the latter half of our likely time on the planet, but damn, I seem to be doing a lot of thinking about the Nineties at the moment.

Assorted media synchronicities are encouraging this to happen, of course. As already noted, reading books from the Bold As Love cycle—despite their being written in the Noughties, and heavily referencing the Sixties—has provoked something of a contact high with the end-of-history hedonism of the Nineties. But we’re also at the point when the figures of the firmament of that time are being fitted into their slots in the historical canon, whether by their own hands or those of others. It’s far from being an original observation, but I keep being reminded that 1994 is as long ago from the present moment as 1968 was from 1994… and that to me, from the vantage of 1994, 1968 seemed almost contiguous with the stone age. 1968 was history, grainy monochrome footage spliced into nostalgic TV like The Wonder Years, hippie beads and peace signs and naivete, the sanitisation and bowdlerisation of a period of genuine (if perhaps always destined-to-fail) social-revolutionary aspirations; the making-safe of a rebellion in which few participated, but many would later lay claim to, as soon as it was made safe to do so.

And now, it is the turn of the period which I think of as “my time” to be sealed into the amber of representation… a process that I understand to be inevitable, irresistible, and far beyond my control. (Though I am reminded, over and again, that I can at least try to put my own account out into the world… which would of course mean making the time for creative work outside the bandwidth expenditure required for the creative work of my actual job, and frankly I’m still struggling to meet that latter demand to a level that feels fair and effective. But that’s a topic for another day.)

The latest reminder—which was very much invited across the threshold, so to speak—came in the form of the movie Creation Stories, a biopic of Creation Records impresario Alan McGee directed by Nick Moran (an actor whose breakthrough role was in Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, who has directed a handful of films including Telstar: The Joe Meek Story) and (partly) scripted by Irvine Welsh. I’m not a cineaste, so I will refrain from saying much about it as cinema beyond suggesting that I doubt it will ever be celebrated as an example of the form, but remarking also that its limitations—which might be said to be the extent to which it deliberately resurrects the visual and narrative style of mid-Nineties cinema; the hand of Welsh in the storytelling is fairly easily discerned—are in some respects also its advantage in evoking the appropriate sense of time in the intended audience, which we can safely assume to be middle-aged alternative-culture wash-ups and nostalgics such as myself.

But there’s a sort of double anachronism at work: Creation Stories feels rather out of place as a movie of 2021, but its treatment of the Long Nineties would also be out of place if situated in the Long Nineties itself; sure, it has that ironic and aware-of-its-own-fictionality thing going on which was very much a cinematic trope of the time, but it clings to that knowingness not as a veneer laid atop a stratum of what is presented as a deeper metaphorical truth, but rather as the deeper truth atop which the narrative bricolage is assembled. Or, more simply: if Nineties cinema was saying, in essence, “self-referentiality is the subjectivity of our current cultural moment”, Creation Stories doubles down with an argument to the effect that “it’s the turtles of self-referentiality all the way down!” (Though now, having phrased it like that, I suppose it’s more 2021 a film than the aesthetic and subject matter might initially make it appear… and, again, I’m horribly aware that I am not a cineaste, and should probably stop writing about films as theoretically legible entities for that reason. But, on the flipside: my blog, my rules.)

I will mention in passing that I felt the film lacked female characters with agency (with the arguable exception of “Gemma”, the journo to whom the film’s version of McGee is recounting his adventures, whose success is later implied to have been at least in part to McGee’s advice and generosity as an interviewee), and that the only two black characters with (a few) lines felt very uncomfortably stereotyped, but what I’m really interested here is the meta-mechanics of the narrative. Creation Stories makes no bones about its role as a hagiography, an elevation of a person whose claim to fame is rooted in his elevation of others to success—and there’s nothing inherently wrong with a hagiography. But it would be very interesting to know the extent of McGee’s own input to the piece, because—as the film makes plain, if not exactly clear—McGee, like his idol Malcolm McLaren, was a sort of instinctive master of the irresistible story of inevitable success, that rare category of the self-trained salesperson whose confidence in the merchandise eventually melds with their confidence in themselves.

Which is to say: this telling of McGee’s story uses light and shade and shock and pathos (and to some extent the sheer weight of momentum) to portray him as simultaneously predestined for success and a relentless hustler willing to endure any privations (not all of which fell on him personally) in order to Make It Happen. And to be fair, the contradictions do come out in the script, with (for example) McGee in the late Creation-at-Sony days recapitulating the self-deluding lines of a mulleted A&R guy from earlier in the film… and those contradictions are held in tension (though not resolved) in the character of McGee, because (like McLaren before him) he recognises (and indeed to some extent celebrates) the fact that the industry is both a sham and a game, while deciding to play it anyway.

The film doesn’t exactly nice-ify McGee either, but it does try to celebrate “rebellion” as an abstract principle in a way that feels, frankly, rather childish. And while it doesn’t exactly shy away from McGee describing himself as a destructive terror of sorts, it does rather portray all of those destructive means as being justified by the ends, or simply by merit of circumstance, or even just handwaving them away so quickly you wonder why them were included at all—as with the very short and hard to parse scene in which his former partner tells him she’s pregnant but, despite having left him due to frustration with his career and lifestyle and lack of prospects, nonetheless tries to trap him into a husband/father role which she believes him to be categorically unsuited for. And, y’know, maybe that really happened, people do weird shit in relationships… but something felt very odd to me in what was clearly meant to be a sort of exculpatory moment in the story, but seemed more like a score-settling.

Because there’s a bunch of score-settling in here, the most notable example being a punch upward, but the others seeming more sidewise. The omissions are perhaps the most effective of these latter, whether they were intended as such or not: the inescapable presence of Teenage Fanclub in the Creation story couldn’t be entirely avoided, and so there are posters of the Bandwagonesque album artwork at the appropriate moments, but the band are (to my memory) entirely absent from both the story and the soundtrack otherwise. Whether this is a snub or just necessarily reductive storytelling is unclear to me, but I guess it may be the latter—because let’s be honest, while Primal Scream and My Bloody Valentine are still big respected names with mainstream recognition, I doubt anyone under forty knows who the Fannies are. MBV, meanwhile, play a much bigger role in the film’s story, but it’s not an entirely flattering portrait, with Loveless-era Kevin Shields barring a furious McGee from accessing the studio in which MBV are busily bankrupting Creation with their obsessive overworking of that masterpiece of an album.

But even here, there may be more going on than meets the camera’s eye, given the off-screen participation of both McGee and various Creation artists in the film. As already noted, McGee understands the power of legend and myth, and it might be that the MBV studio scene is less a skewering of Shields than a respectful reinforcing nudge of the man’s own myth: Shields’s management of My Bloody Valentine as a story (I hesitate to say “brand”, because there’s too much substance there for that) has been astute, a crafty mix of self-deprecating deflation on the one hand and a refusal to deflate the stories told by others on the other hand. And perhaps that mythmaking was learned from the grand master McGee? The film depicts the latter as being inspired by Aleister Crowley as much as Malcolm McLaren, which is a pretty bold move these days; even the chaos magick mob seem cautious of mentioning the Great Beast without some accompanying trigger warnings and disclaimers.

But the champion hatchet job is of course reserved for the “political period” after McGee got himself cleaned up and rehabbed after the inevitable excess-in-LA period. And it’s here that I feel the film works hardest to exculpate and justify McGee’s choices—quite understandably, and perhaps not at all untruthfully. The portrayal of the New Labour mob is deeply unflattering, with Mandy and Campbell as effete poshos, the party machinery woefully out of touch and foolish, their only skill or advantage being the recognition of the opportunity at hand, and the spinning of a story that might fill the gap… and while the film really doesn’t labour (sorry) the comparison, I think it worth noting the way in which at this moment like was drawn to like: McGee’s brand of mythmaking and that of New Labour were very different in character, but they were both based on a blend of pragmatism and hunger for success at any price.

Or, to put it another way, I wonder whether what’s being glossed (or spun?) here is a sense of McGee recognising a kinship with the monsters, a kinship of method if not of teleology or principle. But the use of the folk devil of Jimmy Saville, now completely beyond the pale in a way he somehow wasn’t at the time, to tar the New Labour project by association is devastatingly efficient, even if extraordinarily reductive; no amount of well-intended stuff about policy (e.g. McGee’s claim to have influenced the New Deal for musicians, which in my admittedly hazy memory was not much of a gift by comparison to the Thatcherite EAS which he proudly admits kept Creation afloat when the banks would not) could ever make anyone still on the fence about the politics of the period leap to a damning judgement as could the implication of association with Saville. It allows the film’s McGee a way to both own and then almost instantly to disown his involvement with New Labour—and also to draw a line between his brand of narrative magic and the dark arts of Campbell and company, as well as the vampiric version that kept Saville in the system for so long, at such a horrific cost.

All in all, it’s an incredibly partial story which, to its credit, makes no claims to be anything else, and indeed celebrates the power of determined self-creation to change oneself and the world, even as it celebrates a man whose efforts unarguably left a mark on British culture that contributed to history, even if not quite to the extent the film (and its narrator/hero) might like to have us believe. As a man who identifies with alchemists and sorcerers, he presumably knows that the secret to those arts is less your own power than the skillful channelling and shaping of powers external to you.

And again, I don’t think it’s great cinema—but then it probably doesn’t need to be, given its audience is surely people of a similar age and demography to myself, whose preoccupations have always been more with magnetic tape than with celluloid. It’s not even a particularly brilliant examination of the Svengali archetype, or of confidence as the key to magick and/or artistic manifestation… but it’s perhaps the only examination of those things that also features a Creation Records soundtrack. And at the end of the day, that soundtrack is the only reason we know his name.

Not a bad trick, if you know how to do it.