Many thanks to the German Book Office New York for inviting Repeater to take part in its international editor’s trip to Berlin and Frankfurt. Repeater publisher, Tariq Goddard, joined Henry Carrigan (Northwestern University Press, USA), Giovanni Carletti (Editoria Laterza, Italy), Mikhail Kotomin (Ad Marginem Press, Russia), Marc Lowenthal (MIT Press, USA), Niels Cornelissen (Uotgeverij Boom, Netherlands), Marcos de Miguel (Plaza y Valdés, Spain) and Ken Wissoker (Duke University Press, USA) on the trip, where they met with German publishers, editors and booksellers to discuss trends in philosophy and non-fiction publishing.
Here’s Tariq in front of Adorno’s blackboards (his library apparently includes Arthur Conan Doyle, HP Lovecraft, Evelyn Waugh and James Baldwin)
“…indifferent to the future…”
After consuming a Ritz cracker, two Valiums, half a can of Tab, and one weak, vodka-based cocktail, a girl named Karen slips into a coma one Friday night in 1979.
Seventeen years later she wakes up and the world has changed. The novel, Girlfriend in a Coma by Douglas Coupland, from 1998, shares its basic outline with the classic tale of Rip Van Winkle – or, for that matter, a great deal of the nineteenth century’s futurist literature: L’an 2440, Looking Backwards, The News from Nowhere, and countless others. But Karen doesn’t wake up in utopia. The contradictions of capitalism have not resolved themselves in her sleep. If anything, they have got worse.
“I’m not sure I completely like the new world,” she confesses to her friend Hamilton. “The whole world is only about work: work work work get get get … racing ahead … getting sacked from work … going online … knowing computer languages … winning contracts. I mean, it’s just not what I would have imagined the world might be if you’d asked me seventeen years ago. People are frazzled and angry, desperate about money, and, at best, indifferent to the future.” In the seventeen years she spent asleep, something disappeared from the world as she sees it, “‘meaning’ had vanished”.
When I was at university, in the first years of the twenty-first century, it was considered practically a given that music could have no intrinsic meanings. A piece of music may be meaningful to you, or to specific social groups, in certain contexts, under certain conditions, but it does not in itself bear meaning. This notion, of music as mere “form moving in sound,” was not original when the critic Eduard Hanslick so phrased it in the midst of the 19th century’s war of the romantics. In fact, we can trace the idea at least as far back as Adam Smith’s essay, ‘Of the Nature of that Imitation which takes place in what are called the Imitative Arts’, first thrashed out in the years immediately after the publication of The Wealth of Nations made him the prophet of free market capitalism.
“Melody and harmony,” wrote Smith, “signify and suggest nothing.” Without the anchorage of poetry or pantomime, instrumental music was suitable only for a sort of contemplation “not unlike that which derives from the contemplation of a great system in any other science.” And even in the case of a piece of music – such as a song, dance, or opera – which did seem to have specific meanings attached by the association of another art form, the music itself could act only “like a transparent mantle,” which might lend a “more enlivening lustre” to the meanings and sentiments already expressed.[ii]
As the musicologist Lawrence Kramer suggests, the “problem of meaning” is a symptom of music’s modern separation from ritual. Today, he argues, “No ideas about music are more conventional than that music has no meaning, at least in the sense that words do, and that this lack is something to be treasured, something that helps make music special.”[iii] But even as Kramer wrote those words, the question of meaning was raising its head once more.
Just a few years earlier, another American musicologist named Leo Treitler had noticed a sudden avalanche of books about musical meaning. Treitler tells a story in which he is reading a story by Gabriel Garcia Marquez in the New Yorker and is suddenly struck by the line, “Inside the lights burned in the middle of the day and the string quartet was playing a piece by Mozart, full of foreboding.” So alien is such a characterisation – of a music unambiguously “full of foreboding” –to the formal discourse of musicology, that Treitler found himself “sucked into a fantasy in which Marquez is reading the story aloud and has just come to that sentence himself. A squad of young men and women rush up to him, outfitted in black leather boots, breeches, and vests. Their hair is close-cropped or slicked back. Their leader hands Marquez a summons.”[iv]
“…an outbreak of meaninglessness…”
The hyperbolic nature of Treitler’s little tale implies an awareness on the part of the distinguished professor that while most of us will merrily ascribe any number of meanings to all kinds of music without too much thought, the kind of vigilance represented by his squad of bovver-booted young musicologists remained largely internal to the confines of the academy. And there they might well have stayed. But in the last few years, signs of a kind of creeping panic over meaning have started to seep out of the ivory tower and into the world outside.
In 2013, the music journalist Sophie Heawood wrote a piece for The Guardian in which she confessed that since throwing out a record collection which once “drew out the short sharp words of feelings and turned them into illustrated sentences”, the music she listens to via internet streaming services on her laptop now sounds “about as deep as an oatcake”.[v] It is telling that Heawood relates the new depthlessness she finds in music to a change in the technology through which she experiences it. It was in a pit of depression induced by the years he spent embedded in the Palo Alto dot com bubble, writing Microserfs, that Douglas Coupland conceived Girlfriend in a Coma. The malaise was spreading.
As well as being a composer with a penchant for unusual wind instruments, Jaron Lanier was a pioneer of virtual reality who spent the eighties and nineties in the Silicon Valley thick of it, hobnobbing with the heads of Apple, Microsoft, and Google. So it came as little surprise when in 1999 he wrote an essay entitled ‘Piracy is Your Friend’. In this New York Times piece, Lanier insisted that the free distribution of MP3s was “an opportunity, not a problem.”[vi]
But in 2002, writing an open letter to the producer and theorist Paul D. Miller (aka DJ Spooky), Lanier began to worry that something had gone awry with mainstream pop music in the last decade or so. It was not so much that all the new music was bad; but that there was no new music. Not so much that the content was schlocky; but that there was no content at all. Still he insisted then that file-sharing could not be blamed, that the music industry’s obsession with Napster and the like was “such a crock” and that perhaps, had Napster been given the chance to develop, it could have been just the impetus music needed: a “new electric guitar”.[vii]
Except of course file-sharing has indeed developed, somewhat voraciously. And by 2007 Lanier was admitting, “I was wrong. We were all wrong.”[viii] In a book called You Are Not a Gadget, first published three years after this mea culpa, Lanier wrote extensively about his disappointment with the digital world he had helped to create. He worried that under the influence of social networks and software protocols like MIDI, people are “beginning to design themselves,” – and the art that they create – “to suit digital models” of themselves, and that consequently the ongoing “process of the reinvention of life through music appears to have stopped.” Perhaps, he mused, the ultimate consequence of the seemingly infinite abundance of words and melodies available on the cloud, is to be “an outbreak of meaninglessness.”[ix]
“…if all music had disappeared…”
In 2002, Bill Drummond had already come to a similar conclusion. One day in the spring of that year, the author and former member of arch-pop provocateurs The KLF, stepped through the doors of an HMV megastore in central London and felt a peculiar dread overtake him. Faced with “aisle upon aisle of CDs, rack upon rack in every genre possible,” Drummond thought to himself, “I know whatever I get here, when I get it home, it’s not going to be real. It’s not going to open another door in my head.”
That night, back at home working on his laptop, the feeling got worse. “It was as if every piece of recorded music from the whole history of recorded music – the past hundred and ten years or whatever that it has existed – is behind that screen laughing at me. It was saying, go on, download us!”
Drummond proposed a radical solution, “We’ve got to start all music again. I got into this fantasy in the end: wouldn’t it be great if all music had disappeared? We knew music had existed, but the CDs were blank. You’d go to the piano and you can’t do anything. Drum kits don’t work. It’s all gone. We’ve still got the emotional need to make music, but it cannot be done on any instrument.”
Drummond’s reverie tapped into a strain of hitherto dormant cultural catastrophism that had reared its head in the run-up to the millennium and never quite lain down since. To people still in the midst of the last century, it was pretty much a given that their leaders might capriciously elect to end all life on earth at the push of a button. However, from the phantom Y2K computer bug to the various Mayan apocalypses and ecological disasters (whether ultimately man-made or otherwise) favoured by post-millennial Hollywood film-makers, there lingers a decided whiff of Biblical chiliasm, of Nature’s angry vengeance wrought upon the folly of man. The bomb, at least, maintained a certain deliberate decisionism. It was an apocalypse with agency – no matter now madcap and divorced from the majority of actual people that agency may have been.
Today, though the internationally recognised Doomsday Clock maintained by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists still stands at five minutes to midnight (closer, in fact, than it did for most of the sixties and seventies), we seem to worry little about the bomb.[xi] And yet in a strange sort of way, we live our lives as though the nuclear holocaust had already happened. Culture increasingly resembles not the gleaming fantasia of utopian dreams but the jury-rigged bricolage of post-apocalyptic nightmares.
“…every mark, blotch, and stain…”
An order of monks in a desolate wasteland, patiently copying and illuminating the shopping lists and trivial memoranda of a long-dead electrical engineer onto treated lambskin. The scenario is from a post-apocalyptic fable by Walter M. Miller called A Canticle for Leibowitz, set six hundred years after an atomic catastrophe. But it speaks just as eloquently about our own culture of reissues, remasters, reformations, and gatefold audiophile 180-gram vinyl editions of the long lost demos of some supposedly pivotal rock legend or other. As I read about the desire of Brother Francis (Miller’s protagonist) to duplicate precisely “every mark, blotch, and stain” on the holy relic (an old engineering blueprint) he had discovered in an abandoned shelter, I couldn’t help but think of the discussion between the singer Billy Childish and critic Simon Reynolds in the latter’s book, Retromania, about the fortunes spent on valve studio equipment, the fetishism of antiquated recording equipment and ‘stripped back’ production styles (mono, analogue, live, untreated, etc.).[xii] Reynolds’s book is all about pop music’s hopes for the future being crowded out by a series of compulsions to repeat the past. “Instead of being about itself,” he notes elsewhere in the text, “the 2000s has been about every previous decade happening again all at once: a simultaneity of pop time that abolishes history while nibbling away at the present’s own sense of itself as an era with a distinct identity and feel.”[xiii] It’s as though music has been gobbled up by one of the “time prolapses” in Brian Aldiss’s novel from the mid-seventies, The Eighty Minute Hour.
A weird, sprawling ‘space opera’ in which characters spontaneously break into arias set in verse form, the narrative of this novel is set at the very end of the twentieth century, several years after another world war. It seems as though the pollution from so many nuclear explosions has ruptured the very fabric of space-time, creating pockets of the past in odd places throughout the solar system, and leaving various characters lost and stranded in former centuries. “But suppose your references are all wrong!” speculates one of the characters at one point. “Suppose nothing has happened to us and we’re sitting comfortably back home on earth, 1999 A.D., only we’ve all spiralled round the twonk and are so ego-sick of progress that we’re sunk in a mass-hallucination about it?”[xiv] Our situation is more severe. Rather than hallucinating the time distortion effects of a real thermonuclear war; we have hallucinated the war. The fallout, however, is real.
[ii] Smith, A. The Works of Adam Smith, vol.V, London: T. Cadell & W. Davies, 1811, pp.278-302
[iii] Kramer, L. Musical Meaning: Towards a Critical History,Vol. I, Berkeley & Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2002, p.1, p.11
[iv] Treitler, L. ‘Language and the Interpretation of Meaning’ in Music and Meaning, Robinson, J. (ed.), New York: Cornell University Press, 1997, p.23-4
[v] Heawood, S. ‘Music has died now I’ve thrown away my CDs and only listen on my laptop’, The Guardian, Tuesday 4 June 2013, http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/jun/04/music-died-cds-listen-laptop
[vi] Lanier, J. ‘Piracy Is Your Friend’, New York Times, May 9 1999
[vii] Lanier, J. ‘Where Did the Music Go?’ in Sound Unbound, Miller, P. D. (ed.)
[viii] Laneier, J. ‘Pay Me For My Content’ New York Times, November 20 2007
[ix] Lanier, J. You Are Not A Gadget, London: Penguin, 2011, pp.39, 128, 174
All quotes from interview with the author conducted in July 2006, parts of which subsequently became an article for Plan B Magazine and Drummond went on to write many of the same things in his book 17, published in 2008 by Beautiful Books, London.
[xi] A timeline of the Doomsday Clock may be viewed online at the Bulletin’s website, http://thebulletin.org/timeline
[xii] Miller, W. M. A Canticle for Leibowitz, New York: Bantam, 1961, pp.60-70; Reynolds, Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to It’s Own Past, New York: Faber, 2011, p.270
[xiii] Reynolds, 2011, op. cit. pp.x-xi
[xiv] Aldiss, B. The Eighty Minute Hour, New York: Leisure, 1975, p.75
In the May 7th issue of the LRB, Dawn Foster demolished the arguments in favour of free schools. In particular, she highlighted how huge amounts of public money has, in some cases, been spent setting up free schools in areas where there is no lack of school places:
“There is no requirement that free school founders have experience of running a school, and no assessment is made as to whether the prospective founders will be able to meet the legally required standards of school governance.
In effect, this means that any group of parents who believe there is a need for a new school can club together and apply to set it up. Successful applicants have argued that there is a local need for Steiner schools, German schools, and schools that follow Montessori or Maharishi principles. An application to set up a Scientology school was unsuccessful. The ‘need’ for a new school isn’t necessarily based on an assessment of the number of school places available in a given area, but on parental choice and a clamouring for individualism in state-funded education. Petitions often suffice. One academy chain putting forward an application to start a free school in Doncaster offered potential pupils £500 to sign up: other free schools have offered iPads and bicycles…
…In a report from May 2014, the Public Accounts Committee noted that £1.1 billion had been spent on free schools up to March 2014, of which £700 million was for land and buildings; £241 million had been spent in areas with no shortage of school places. While 87 per cent of primary places created were in places of need, only 19 per cent of secondary places were…
…As with the NHS, the slow creep of privatisation in education happens below the surface. ‘There is this group of people,’ Millar explains, ‘who think England will get for-profit schools, and they want to be there at the beginning of it, because it’s a lucrative business once you get chains of schools.’…
…When Ofsted finds that a local authority school is failing, the school is taken over by an academy chain. When a converted academy is found to be failing, it doesn’t return to local authority status: it is handed on to a different academy chain. It’s a one-way street: theoretically, if standards slip, every school in the country could become an academy.”
Unsurprisingly, free schools’ most high-profile advocate, Toby Young wasn’t a fan of the piece. In a letter to the LRB he took issue with with Foster’s interpretation of the statistics, making claims that were immediately demolished in letters from Michael Rosen, Melissa Benn & Janet Downs that are worth reading in full. He then went on to imply that, anyway, all this thoroughly researched analysis is irrelevant, because he knows Michael Gove and Andrew Adonis personally, and they’re decent chaps who with the best intentions. Thanks for clearing that up Toby.
“…More misleading than simply neglecting these subtleties was the overall thrust of the articles, which is that the reforms initiated by Michael Gove (and to a lesser extent Andrew Adonis) were masterminded by evil capitalists, intent on squeezing the last drop of profit out of state-funded education. That simply isn’t true. Having spoken at length to Andrew Adonis, and knowing Michael as I do, I can say with complete confidence that their sole motive was to improve England’s public education system – in particular, to improve outcomes for the least well-off, who fared very badly under the pre-2010 state-run Shangri-la favoured by both authors. For Andrew and Michael, education reform is and always has been a moral crusade, not an attempt to hand control of England’s public education system to billionaire robber barons.
West London Free School Academy Trust
Dawn Foster replied, explaining how Young had misrepresented her argument, before delivering a final blow:
“It’s hardly surprising, given his investment in the cause, that Toby Young ignores the main points in responding to my piece, and cherry-picks the data. As I wrote, only 19 per cent of secondary free schools are opened in areas with a shortage of places: a colossal waste of funds that justifiably drew the attention of the Public Accounts Committee. When free schools do open in deprived areas, the students they enrol are not the poorest; one of the problems people have with free schools is that they make it possible for sharp-elbowed parents to separate their children from the children of their more deprived neighbours. Of the first wave of 24 free schools, all but two have free school meals rates below the local average. An Institute of Education report on free schools in 2014 showed that 13.5 per cent of pupils attending primary free schools were eligible for free meals when the local average was 18.3 per cent; for secondary free schools, the corresponding figures were 17.5 per cent and 22.1 per cent. Creaming off the children of more affluent parents constitutes social segregation; so too does the existence of religious free schools.
Young seems to think he is held in high regard by free school advocates. When I mentioned his name in the course of interviewing a former Department for Education employee for the piece, my interviewee headbutted the restaurant table in exasperation. I have found the sentiment, if not the gesture, to be common among his ideological comrades.”
Dawn Foster is a writer and journalist. Her first book, Lean Out, a critique of corporate feminism, will be one of Repeater’s launch titles in early 2016.
Listen to Jam City’s NTS mix [mixcloud https://www.mixcloud.com/NTSRadio/jam-city-1st-june-2015/ width=660 height=208 hide_cover=1 hide_tracklist=1]
I have zero time for the common refrain of middle-aged music journalists, “why is there no political music nowadays?”. It’s a question that’s lazy at best and disingenuous at worst. But, if I was going to bother to reply to someone asking that this week, I’d just ping them a link to any of Jam City’s recent interviews (if examples from rock were needed, see also Algiers or Perfect Pussy). Here’s a couple of recent excerpts:
From Complex magazine, in April:
Dream A Garden is a statement album, telling stories about emotional fallouts in the neoliberal world, the same world depicted by Classical Curves with its glossy images of luxury possessions. Is Classical Curves, Dream A Garden—but with a certain cynicism?
Yes, absolutely. In the past, I’ve been fascinated and repulsed by the glossy surface of neoliberal capitalism: luxury products, useless electronic. But after a while, you realise that this is only the tip of the iceberg. Dream A Garden is about learning to situate those luxury images within a larger context of violence, exploitation, and depression….
I hate this line of, “No politics on the dancefloor.” Dance music has never NOT been political! It’s always been transgressive, from disco to dub-reggae to grime. It’s only in the last few years that “the underground” has got further and further away from those agendas. We need to ask why this is.
“To Latham, the inherent politics of dancing, raving, clubbing – whatever you call it – are blindingly obvious. “If you take a long view of history, there’s always been a kind of transgressive politics to dance music – disco, dub, reggae, rave, grime – but it’s funny, someone said to me in an interview the other day, ‘People don’t normally associate club music with politics.’ I was like, ‘Are you kidding me?!’ It’s never not been political! But somehow, in the last five years or something, in correlation to a lot of political things that have been going on, specifically in this country, it has kind of become an island, a little bit.” So you’re not concerned by the cultural gatekeepers who keep saying political music isn’t what it was in the 80s? He laughs. “It’s not! It’s not the 80s! The 80s are done and dusted.”
“People say about this generation that it’s the apathetic generation or whatever, but I think we’re probably more educated about a lot of things than ever, people are plugged in, and they know what’s going on. But the exhaustion is still there. It’s hard to know how to find a language to talk about these things. I don’t understand mainstream party politics, I never have, it doesn’t speak a language to me that I’ve ever felt I could relate to, and I’m sure it’s probably the same for most people.” And yet he has found a language, and as a political lyricist he is refreshingly natural and unconventional, his heavily filtered voice plaintively singing short lines about riots, body image, the sadness and solipsism of consumer culture, “porn and Adderall”, and the yearning to reconnect, and to feel again.
For Latham, hope lies in other people, strangers meeting (or not meeting) in some of the cultural spaces that are themselves falling victim to contemporary capitalism; he cites a spate of club closures in London, the gentrification of others, and also, in light of the cost of tuition fees, “being able to afford to study; and meeting people, and forming a band, or starting a club night. It’s like the internet’s all we have, and none of us really have any money, so of course that’s the way that we organise and seek comfort from other people. But the doors to do that in real life, that historically have made other movements possible, just seem quite closed to our generation. We need those places and spaces where we can celebrate, because it’s a coping mechanism.”
“We have to deal with the complete privatisation of every aspect of our lives, and I just really believe there should be a physical space where we can go for six or seven hours to reorientate ourselves, actually be fucking humans again, and dance, and hear things that make us feel good inside.”
While dance music’s historical role as a site of possibility and transgression is inarguable, there can be an assumption that dance music today, and, by extension, the people involved in it, are inherently left-wing. Which, as anyone saw Boddika’s tweet and the response to it last week will know, is far from the case. He tweeted:
Many industry figures leapt to defend him, to say it must have been taken out of context, that anyone with a jot of sense would know he didn’t really mean it like that. But several also immediately called out his racism, with Jam City (in a now deleted tweet) and Night Slugs boss Bok Bok amongst the most outspoken.
Granted, few currently big electronic artists are quite as outspokenly political as Jam City (at least, ones that get interviewed in the Guardian). And, equally, there are plenty of politically engaged DJs/producers/performers and always have been. It would be OTT to proclaim that Jam City heralds a new era of politically engaged dance music. Dream A Garden probably won’t end up as the soundtrack to a summer of riots, 2015. But it feels like there may be a slight shift towards a somewhat more politically engaged, diverse electronic music scene, and Jam City’s recent output is an encouraging sign.
Jam City plays the ICA tonight, 5th June.