Thursday, 11 July 2013

And how should I begin?

Hello, dear as-yet-hypothetical reader. I have decided to start a blog. There's no theme other than whatever is on my mind, but I imagine literature, film & TV, music, language, and whatever's in the news will crop up more often than not. The impetus for setting up this blog was my fondness for argument - which I tell you, I suppose, to both encourage and warn.

I am woken up each morning by music on the radio and a shrill alarm clock (thankfully it is the music that stays with me for the rest of the day - that ringing is just tinnitus, I think). So I'll start my blog as I start my day - with music.

Specifically with the question - why so much pastiche? Why over the past five years or so have artists achieved so much success imitating defunct (maybe 'historical' is kinder and less question-begging) styles and genres? Amy Winehouse (jazz-lite / soul), Duffy (soul, apparently), Daft Punk (disco), Jake Bugg (Johnny Cash?) - and an enormous amount of pseudo-Motown stuff. 

I'm not particularly exercised as to whether it is good or bad, nor is the fact of its existence anomalous - this stuff has always been around (The Commitments, The 'British Blues Boom', etc.). What is curious, however, is that pastiche seems to be becoming more popular at the same time that new media (esp. YouTube and Spotify) make the originals being imitated ever more easily accessible. Given that it is now just as easy to get hold of some Etta James as it is some Paloma Faith, why are the original artists not crowding out their latter-day copyists? Now that blues, soul, country, jazz, etc. have ditched those off-putting muso trappings (out-of-the-way record shops, obscure labels, bad or bare-faced deceitful packaging, the painful prose of Mojo magazine) for the more level playing-field of online platforms, one would expect pastiche to become less rather than more popular.

Okay, so I'm presupposing that Paloma Faith, say, is musically redundant if put together next to Etta James - clearly not true or fair. My thwarted expectation only requires further attention, you might argue, if it is a valid expectation in the first place that, given a straight choice, a non-perverse listener would always prefer Etta James to Paloma Faith. I'd rather leave that question aside, for now.

I'm also, admittedly, skirting close to a wish-fulfilment fantasy in which, rescued by the internet, the original artists reclaim the glory, not to mention royalties, stolen from them by their pygmy imitators (or, if you will, Little Richard finally has his revenge on Pat Boone).

So what is the argument I am making? That latter-day imitators outsell the artists that inspired them for the same reasons they always did, and the hope that the internet might overturn this state of affairs is just another of its delusory promises.

On the one hand, it seems likely that the appetite for these pastiche acts has been sparked by newfound access to their predecessors – with Spotify and iTunes playlists replacing radio playlists, it becomes easier for disco and country stylings to enter the mainstream. On the other hand, however, the grassroots rediscovery of these older acts is merely prompting music labels to respond by appropriating them and repackaging them as pastiche – the hope that the world wide web’s vast potential for individuals to make new, ever freer cultural interactions might, correspondingly, make our collective cultural space wider and more pluralistic is a false one. It merely provides raw material that the music industry casts into a newly homogenized, marketable format. 

There is nothing wrong with this, in some ways – it’s what people want. It’s more fun (I can only assume) to follow a living artist than a dead or ageing one, one who is releasing new material, living his or her cultural moment along with fans. Record companies know this and so push Seasick Steve rather than the blues artists he imitates.

But this is not the best we could hope for from the defining tool of the age. In fact, isn't the world wide web so often disappointing, and much less transformative than it promises to be? The musical mainstream is responding to new influences, but through an antagonistic, conservative form of containment - which is hardly what we value in the WWW. The freedom we have as individual consumers of music is much enlarged, and improved, but this has not translated into a freedom to determine which acts get the breaks, or to enlarge correspondingly the musical mainstream. This is because, I suppose, the internet is little more than a telephone line: it does not in itself possess or confer any agency, or means of social social empowerment, and so cannot on its own change the power relationship between us and the music industry. Despite the intense narcissism of this particular medium (the Arab Spring was the ‘Twitter revolution’ in a way the Prague Spring was never the ‘telephone revolution’) it is still just a conduit for non-digital intentions and actions. And it is clear that record companies looking for bankable artists act more coherently and with greater intent than music lovers sitting at their laptop ambling through Spotify.

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