Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Pop will eat itself

Popular music has been stuck in a rut since the 1990s. So has fashion. The kids are dressing like their parents and listening to music their parents would like. At least according to Rick, who wonders what the apparent fossilisation of youth culture means:
What does this all mean? I really have no idea but it does feel like yet another Back-To. There have been a lot of them recently. We are going back to 1938 levels of income distribution, back to a time when profits took the lion’s share of GDP, back to a time when charities, rather than the state, were expected to provide for the poor, back to lower economic growth. And back to a time before rock n roll when sons dressed like their fathers. All of which makes me wonder whether the postwar world, with its high wages, increasing equality, high economic growth and rock n roll revolutions every few years, may turn out to be a historical blip.
In other words, the strange death of youth culture is the canary in the coal mine. Kids no longer have more cash to splash than their parents did. Inexorable political, economic and technological forces have destroyed full employment and secure employment. With no higher education, you can avoid massive debt, but you're left with meagre job prospects, or alternatively, you can get qualifications that come chained to a massive iron ball of debt. These trends look set to continue. Your only hope for the future is to conform, keep your nose clean and your head down, and hope that your boss never finds out about the time you confessed on Facebook that you love playing in a band with your mates almost as much as you hate your stupid day job.

Great. Can I just kill myself now?

A clear-headed assessment of the irresistible forces shaping the future, or sad donkey economics? Today, I feel like being a glass half full person, not because I've turned into a Carney groupie, but just because I'm getting tired of the crushing weight of gloom. Here's an alternative explanation (which may be just me whistling in the dark, but what the heck). Youth culture was never quite as revolutionary or liberating as its hype and it's now growing old, getting sick and succumbing to its internal contradictions:

1. Youth culture was never quite as great as the bits we remember.

It seems to me that eras are defined retrospectively and selectively. The iconic images and selected highlights of the 1960s, for example, obscure the rather less exciting reality of being a child of the '60s:
For instance, in Britain with almost 60 million people, less than one million bought the best-selling single records in a week, while over 20 million regularly tuned in to watch The Black and White Minstrel Show on TV...

...It is popularly believed that the Beatles were the unbeaten kings of the charts with 22 top ten hits; but Cliff Richard had thirty eight. South Pacific was top selling album for 46 weeks. Two versions of The Sound of Music occupied the charts for over five years and sold more copies worldwide than the Beatles’ top seller, Abbey Road.

While miniskirts were an iconic image of the times, outside London and the major cities they were slow to catch on. It was not as easy for young people who were not rock stars to acquire cocaine, cannabis and LSD as is assumed, or as is the case today
2. Bright colours look brighter against a drab background.

The generation of parents who grew up wearing the conventional uniform of respectable adulthood and were truly baffled and outraged by their kids' alien dress, music and hair and are mostly dead or in retirement homes by now. Many parents of today's teenagers remember defiantly waving their own rebellious youth culture in the face of the stuffy adult world, as did many of their parents before them. Young people entering a rebellious, oppositional subculture is now seen as a normal (if not quite universal) rite of passage and, with each generational iteration, the process loses a bit more of its novelty and edge.

3. Fake authenticity fatigue.

We've seen plenty of yesterday's hell-raisers morph into establishment-friendly national treasures and grow old, along with the youth industry itself, which is now a mature sector of the economy. From the start, the industry that invented the teenager has co-opted, assimilated, re-packaged and commodified bits of folk culture, street culture and counter cultures for re-sale back to its chosen demographic and has manufactured its own teen-friendly product when the seam of authentic got too difficult to mine. Maybe this established process is becoming increasingly hard not to notice.

4. Kids dressing like their parents? What do you expect, now that parents dress like their kids?

Off duty, at least, many adults dress however the hell they like and diversity is a tough look to define yourself against. Back in the '90s, an older colleague in an insurance office told me about an incident from the 1960s, when one of her male colleagues was summoned to see the boss and sent home in disgrace for having dared to turn up for work in a pale blue shirt, back  in the days when 'white collar job' meant exactly that. These days, you just can't rely on the new boss to be a stuffed suit any more, even if the new boss is functionally the same as the old boss. You could up your game from cloth to ink and try to hack your parents off with a tattoo, but since this would make you precisely as wild and edgy as Samantha Cameron, or David Dimbleby what, honestly, would be the point?

5. Did youth culture really power the sexual revolution?

Well, it gave a few alpha male peacocks more opportunities to get laid, but changing sexual mores had more to do with women's access to more reliable contraception. Not playing Russian roulette with the creation of a new human life is one heck of a big deal. It also takes two to tango and the liberation of the female partner (which lagged behind the 'liberation' of male chauvinist pigs boasting about how many chicks they'd bedded), owed more to feminism and progress towards relative female economic independence. Perhaps youth culture did help gay liberation on its way, but Quentin Crisp* was no youthful spring chicken when he achieved iconhood and Roy Jenkins (whose contribution to gay liberation and the 'permissive' society was still making Daily Telegraph columnists harrumph when he died in 2003), was no rock star.

6.  Who says youth culture can only ever be about fashion and new music genres?

Maybe there's a problem of definition here. OK, so let's accept the proposition that the generation of innovative music genres has dried up, but maybe kids are just spending more time on other things - social media, computer games, whatever?

7. Hollywooditis.

OK, they might have nothing to do with proper young musicians trying to produce something new and original in the back bedroom, but Simon Cowell and the other gatekeepers of mass popular entertainment have a lot to answer for. The process of producing a crowd-pleasing big hit suffers from the same constraints as producing an expensive Hollywood blockbuster.

 The studios don't want to lose a lot of money, so they too often play it safe with high concept, focus groups, re-writes to eliminate the challenging and difficult bits that bummed people out in the test screening, squeezing the very last drops out of a profitable formula or franchise, or 'reimagining' one that was popular back when we were kids, rather than risking anything crazy like being new, or different. The resulting product is too often bland, safe and derivative. Rather like a musical product moulded under pressure, in the glare of the TV lights and quality-controlled by a crowdsouced focus group of phone voters.

8. A (fake) working-class hero is something to be.

Rock n' pop made stars of people from poor and ordinary backgrounds, to be sure, but it wasn't all social mobility. If you didn't really struggle your way up from the wrong side of the tracks, you could always wrap yourself in a proletarian rebel attitude as easily as putting on a distressed leather jacket, like Mr Bob Geldof, alumnus of the fee-paying Blackrock College. 'Well, then what can a poor boy do. Except to sing for a rock n roll band' sang the comfortably middle-class Mick Jagger, having considered and rejected alternative career paths involving study at the London School of Economics, followed by a possible stint in politics or journalism. The Beatles didn't have to fake their street cred - except for John Lennon who wasn't quite the working class hero. Music's still a route out to something better - it was, for example Radiohead's way out of the ghetto of Abingdon independent school (current fees £15k for day pupils, £28k for boarders).

Among the poor boys and girls made good, there were also rich kids, dressed down in faded jeans and estuary English. There still are, although most of them don't bother with the mockney accents any more.

I don't want to be completely cynical and negative about youth culture - enthusiastic youth fandom has done a lot to break down barriers and to raise the status of people who've been discriminated against for just being themselves - inspirational female, black and gay artists who have commanded not just acceptance, but respect, and who have recruited new foot soldiers to the struggle of making the world a better, saner, less arbitrary, more open-minded place. And there's nothing wrong with the musical genius who creates an insanely catchy pop song that's never going to change the world except by making it a fun place to be for the next three minutes.

But did we really have a rock n' roll revolution every few years?  If we did, most of these revolutions seem to have shared one slogan - 'the revolution will be marketed.' The rebellious attitude that was going to change the world was quickly turned into product. My parents went to Woodstock and all I got was this lousy Che Guevara T-Shirt. But never mind if the last generation of youth heroes sold out, kids, there'll be a new one along any minute ... who'll also be flogging jeans to fill their pension pot in a few years time. Wash, rinse, repeat.

Today's kids face a difficult future, which, if current trends continue, could contain more stifling conformism and less spontaneity and social mobility. But no trend lasts for ever and maybe this one is itself a mere blip within a bigger, more positive trend. And, perhaps, the apparent stagnation of popular culture is less the expression of the current societal malaise than the fulfilment of a pop culture prophecy. Pop has finally eaten itself.

*For the sake of balance, I should acknowledge that Crisp isn't everyone's idea of a national treasure.