Monday, May 17, 2010

2007 conversation with Mark Fisher of K-punk re Bring the Noise

I've noticed that
of
the 22 pieces about music from the current decade, only two - those
devoted
to Radiohead and the Arctic Monkeys - could be said to be about rock
artists. It's like rock has faded out by the end.


It felt like the right time to do a collection of all this stuff I’ve done over twenty years—and this is just a fraction of it, I’ve been churning the stuff out. There didn’t seem much point, though, in overlapping with Energy Flash, itself based on all my rave and electronic music journalism of the Nineties, so I decided to go with the idea of collection oriented around the two other things apart from rave that I’ve mostly written about, ie. alternative rock and hip hop (the latter understood as including its sister R&B and its cousins grime and dancehall). So Bring the Noise touches on dance music glancingly, when it connects to the theme around which the collection is organized: the relationship between white bohemian rock and black street music, these alternating phases of musical miscegenation and sonic segregation. The result works as a kind of history of the last 20 years in music—there’s certain gaps, and a definite slant, but the reader gleans a pretty good picture of what happened in those two decades and what the really critical issues were.”

“You’re right, there’s only a few pieces from the 21st Century that relate to rock—Radiohead, the Animal Collective, Arctic Monkeys—and that partly reflects how consumed I’ve been by the black street music end of things, especially grime, but partly has to do with how lame alternative rock has been in the age of retro. White bohemia really needs to get its shit together, because sonically speaking it’s been lagging behind black music for a decade, maybe a couple of decades. That said, the black street end of things has lately reached a similar kind of impasse. Indie rock and hip hop feel equally deadlocked. They’re both traditions, set in their ways. They can be redeemed every so often by an artist with personality and verve and vigour—a group like Arctic Monkeys, or in rap many would currently say Lil Wayne. But neither genre seems to hold the possibility of surprise.”



The obvious first question concerns your rehabilitation of 'rockism'. You
situate the book as picking up the story where Rip it Up left off.
Obviously, the attack on 'rockism' originated with post-punk. Is the
reclaiming of 'rockism' an unlearning of post-punk orthodoxy, or can your
take on rockism be seen as in some ways continuous with post-punk?



A complicated area. Obviously, the idea of rockism as a bad thing, a blinkered mindset, was a really useful initiative when first mooted in postpunk days, and it carried on being salient and productive for some time after that. There are many aspects of rockism that remain worth attacking—privileging of the electric guitar; any approach that fixates on the song and sees rock as form of surrogate literature, the songwriter as story teller; limiting notions of authenticity, et al. I would agree with those who argue that rockism actually limits one’s understanding of rock music itself, of where its power lies. And those died-in-the-wool rockists still lurking out there who dismiss disco/rap/techno/etc aren’t “real” music are reactionary fools who deserve our scorn.

That said, the anti-rockist polemic that resurged this decade seems to have developed a kind of runaway momentum, a malign logic that some people followed through to absurd places. You started getting people arguing that singling out a figure like Timbaland as an auteur and an innovator, that is rockist. Or that if you allowed your sense of the artist’s personality—their intent and integrity—to interfere with your enjoyment of a record, that meant your mind was still shackled by rockist hang-ups. There seems to be a drive towards eliminating all axes of judgement beyond pure pleasure, the supposed purity of the consumer’s unmediated experience of the pop commodity. The distinction between “urgent” and “trivial” is obviously a no-no for these heroic anti-rockists, but you even get people seriously debating whether distinctions based on quality --good/bad—are rockist and should be jettisoned.

The most recent test case figure for this lunatic fringe of anti-rockism is Paris Hilton. When you’re developing elaborate validating analyses of Paris Hilton, that ought to be a sign that you’re gone too far!

So I began to realize a few years ago that it had moved beyond an attack on the idea that guitar rock alone had a special claim on seriousness, art status, rebellion, etc
to the rejection of those ideals altogether—the whole complex of values to do with innovation, edge, danger, difficulty, subversion, disruption, notions of music as underground or oppositional, as either “art” (vision, expression, etc) or “folk” (social energy, collectivity, the real). This is all stuff we’re supposed to jettison, not just as something no longer applicable to the current situation, our scaled-down expectations,
but as something that was never valid, was always fraudulent. I started to feel like I was quite comfortable with the idea of being a rockist, because all the eras and genres of music that have meant the most to me—Sixties psychedelia, postpunk, rap, rave, grime—are riddled to the core with those values. They might not have electric guitars or husky-voiced vocalists but they are all based around what are apparently irredeemably rockist ideals.

I would diagnose the more fanatical end of anti-rockism (commonly known as
Poptimism or Pop-ism, as opposed to the more sensible, if tepid, generalist position that a lot of professional critics adopt, a/k/a non-commital eclecticism), I would diagnose it in terms of generational ressentiment. It’s directed at the Sixties, at postpunk, at rave, at the early pre-corporatized days of rap—there’s an impulse
to discredit all these moments when music really was a cultural force by invalidating the terms in which they were understood to matter. Yet all those moments are truly why we’re here having this conversation. Anti-rockism started as a self-correcting move within rock discourse, a way of restoring a kind of suppleness and open-ness to an ideology that had become calcified and restrictive; it really means nothing outside that context. New Pop was out-growth of rockism in the largest sense that I now envisage (the whole apparatus of importance, relevance, seriousness, music as a force for change). New Pop was an evolution out of postpunk, as postpunk was the next stage from punk. I would describe myself as a “New Pop”-ist, as opposed to—and in opposition to—Pop-ism. New Pop involved creatively autonomous units working within pop, it’s part of a line that includes glam, but also the Beatles, Kinks, Syd Barrett’s Floyd. There’s a vast gulf between Scritti/ABC/Madness and Take That/Sugababes/Girls Aloud. That’s not to say that the producer/manager/song-doctor/stylist driven puppet-pop machine doesn’t occasionally churn out brilliant things, but… you can’t rely on it.

Pop-ism in its most extreme form seems like an attempt to accommodate to, or actively accelerate, the coming of a world where “it’s like rock never happened”.

Embracing “rockism” is helped enormously by the fact that I love rock. The bulk of the Rock Canon as far as I’m concerned is thoroughly worthy of veneration; I also have a lot of time for rock in its most hard-rocking, masculinist sense. I would say there’s also a musical significance to “rockist” in the sense that phrases to do with rock—“let’s rock”, “rock the crowd”, etc—are part of the slanguage of most of the music I like, rave to rap to reggae.


Your version of rockism is very tied up with a 'vanguardism': an
unsettling
of the mainstream. This depends upon a distinction between the underground
and the overground that, as you suggest in the intro, is less and less
sustainable. There's no underground (pop is ubiquitous, there are no
marginal spaces anywhere) but there's no overground either - a series of
niche markets have replaced a mainstream which could be subverted. Is this
kind of vanguardism possible any more then?


This sense of the death of subcultures and the idea of “underground”-- all this was becoming apparent as early as the mid-Eighties, at the start of the period Bring the Noise covers. It was clear that the media and the record industry, having learned from punk and being caught out, had become so nimble and vigilant about new trends that it would almost instantly co-opt any new subculture and, even with the best of intentions, effectively snuff it out through over-exposure and mainstreaming. We used to write gloomy jeremiads touching on these ideas in our mid-Eighties fanzine Monitor. What’s surprising is how undergrounds have managed to occur again and again despite this ultra-alert media machine/record industry always on the lookout for fresh blood, “the next punk”. Jungle existed in genuine media darkness for a surprisingly long period. There are others like the various metal undergrounds, the free folk and noise scenes, all kinds of dance music scenes. But they have to make a fairly concerted effort to stay underground, pursue obscurity, this often expressed in a kind of handicraft approach to their releases. And they do often have a specialist press servicing them, and sometimes supporters within the mainstream media.

I think the classic sequence of underground>breakthrough>mainstreaming has become more complicated. Grime for instance doesn’t fit that model/narrative. The genre starts at the top of the charts, with So Solid Crew and Oxide & Neutrino, then dips away from the mainstream for a bit, then comes back through blogger and journalistic support circa Dizzee Rascal as this critically approved vanguard, gets tentatively embraced by the record industry, but then pretty much tanks in the popular marketplace. Now it’s in some kind of ghastly limbo between underground and mainstream, this sort of passed-its-moment, post-hip purgatory.


The other thing that immediately occurs to me, given the ToC, is the
white-black relation. One of the later pieces is about white and black pop
no longer talking to one another. Is the breakdown of the relationship
between white and black pop one of the stories of the last twenty years,
and
why has it happened? Course, one interesting thing about the 70s and 80s
was
the white influence of _white_ pop on black pop. (Chic citing Roxy as an
influence, Grace Jones covering all those art rock songs, Scritti
designing
the template Jam and Lewis would tweak for Janet Jackson's control.) That
seems completely unimaginable now.



That is another aspect that perhaps indicates I’m a creature of a particular era-- this idée fixe that white rock needs to have some kind of engagement with black music and black culture. Perhaps no one cares about this idea anymore, or a lot less people—maybe because the idea that this sort of musical mixture augurs any kind of broader culture advance in terms of multiculturalism or the end of racism, that seems a shaky proposition. Weren’t there studies a few years ago that indicated that the UK is as racially divided as ever? Jungle seemed a really positive development, it was a music that genuinely seemed to be creole. But grime seems to be seen as much more as a purely black thing, although in actually fact the members of Roll Deep, say, are a real rainbow coalition, with some members being really jumbled-up mix-race types.

You do occasionally get black musicians today talking about their love of certain white performers--bizarrely, Timbaland seems to think Coldplay are geniuses, and more sensibly has talked of admiring Bjork. Then there’s Dizzee Rascal with his love of Nirvana and Sepultura, and he’s done collaborations with Arctic Monkeys and Lily Allen. But there does seem to be a bit of a go-our-own-way, unconscious segregation impulse at the moment.

Going back to the white-on-black thing, I think that there’s just as many white listeners who are obsessed with black music as ever there were and who identify with it, but what’s changed is the confidence of thinking you can add anything to black music has faded significantly. In the Sixties, the whole British rock movement really starts with mostly young middle class men obsessed with the blues. I recently watched a documentary on John Mayall and his Bluesbreakers, which was like this academy that produced people like Clapton, Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, Mick Fleetwood, John McVie…. There was this massive British blues boom all through the Sixties, once psychedelia passed it was bigger than ever for the last few years of the Sixties, and it’s true the music sounds pretty dreary to our ears and redundant in so far as very little of it is adding that much to the original black blues (although there was a progressive current within it that led to Led Zeppelin etc). But in its favour, it did show a sort of fearlessness on the part of white musicians that they could do this music of black origin.. There was a consumer-to-creator movement goingfrom admiring and loving the music to actually doing it. A confidence, even some gall. I don’t see anything like that in respect to hip hop. There’s much more hesitation and feeling like it’s black property. The UK things that have engaged with hip hop have mostly been on the rhythm front, like jungle.

One other narrative that the book tracks is hip hop, and particularly a
white audience's relationship to it. When you were writing about
Mantronix,
Public Enemy and the Skinny Boys in the mid 80s, it made sense to fit hip
hop into an avant garde aesthetic. Hip hop was openly anti-humanist and
anti-organicist (c.f. that great quote from Hank Shocklee you use in the
intro). Now if there is a mainstream, it would be hip hop. Hip hop has
been
dominant for nigh on twenty years. I think it is now far more tired than
dinosaur rock ever was in the 80s. What's your take on this?


That was one of the best things you wrote on your blog, I thought: that hip hop was now the problem. It seems exhausted yet incapable of either renewing itself or being dislodged. It’s like rock just before punk, this thing that started as a movement of emancipation and has become an entertainment industry. But hip hop hasn’t been able to generate its own punk, for some reason. Hip hop now makes me think of this line Greil Marcus came up with in a great piece he wrote on the Death of Rock, circa Nirvana. He wrote something like “rock is dead but the money’s too good to quit” and then nuanced the comment to something like “maybe the cause of the anguish isn’t that rock is dead but that it refuses to die”. The rap industry is so massive, there’s so many economic interests tied up, it’s just going to perpetuate itself. As I said earlier, there will be artists within that who offer a flicker of originality or spark of vision, just as there will now and then be a conventional rock band that has something going for it. But the vast bulk of it is cultural living death. The fact that we recently heard elder spokesman types in rap like Jay-Z saying “rap’s corny now” or Timbaland saying “hip hop is boring, my own stuff bores me”, that seems awfully telling. Or Nas with his Hip Hop Is Dead album…


How does the 'rockist' position you adopt in the introduction square with
the position you were arguing for at the time of Blissed Out? Some of the
pieces in the book date from the time you putting Blissed Out together. Is
there a tension between the emphasis on jouissance, texture and
meaninglessness you championed then and the 'rockist' rhetoric of
significance, authenticity and subversion you favour now?


Obviously, part of it is that the writing in Blissed Out was done seventeen to twenty-one years ago, it was a response to the music around at the time, filtered through where my head was at (in terms of being addled by all this French theory). So it was totally bound up with what seemed to be worth championing musically and what also seemed like “the enemy”. A whole bunch of factors encouraged me to take this particular sensibility/aesthetic to a real extreme, this fixation on jouissance and ego-loss as the be-all and end-all of musical experience. Now that seems both a rather narrow vision of what music offers, and also distinctly adolescent.

At Melody Maker we were in a kind of bubble--I was on salary but able to do what I wanted, I wrote from home, came into the office when I liked, living this dream life of listening to records, going to gigs, thinking and talking about music, nonstop. I enjoyed it so much the first year on staff, 1987, I didn’t take any of the five weeks holiday I was entitled to. Also in my personal life I was young, free and for a good part of that time single. So everything encouraged this kind of maniacal, messianic type mindset. I wouldn’t say I was a particularly grounded individual at that point, for better or worse! Anyway we at MM -particularly me and Paul Oldfield--took these ideas (basically a mish-mash of psychedelia and French theory) and certainly in my case developed them into a kind of mystical nihilism. It was rockist in the sense of being squarely in a certain tradition that sees rock’n’roll as Dionysian and chaotic--that line that goes from the early rock’n’roll celebrated by Nik Cohn in his book Awopbopaloobop through the Doors/Hendrix/Stooges/garage punk and psychedelia--i.e. music as headfuck and freakout. You could extend that into rave music, which in some ways was the continuation of the blissed-out line of thought. In another sense, though, it was anti-rockist, because it was opposed to the dull’n’worthy rockism prevalent in the Eighties that venerated Springsteen, Costello, Tracy Chapman, the side of U2 that led to Rattle and Hum--song as story or statement, roots, soul, etc. Or that led to indie-rock in its most puny, regressive, retro-reverent sense. In Blissed Out, I represent the side of rock that I liked in terms of Gnosticism and the dreary rockism as the church--orderly, sanctimonious, doctrinal, etc.

In a lot of ways in the bliss-phase I was reacting against post-punk which was so bound up with meaning, lyrical messages, significance, conceptualism--against that I was proposing this mind-less rapture, a more intuitive and less super-ego censored form of musical creativity. And these ideas were not coming out of nowhere, they were totally shaped by the kind of music being made at that time--Sonic Youth, My Bloody Valentine, Loop, Butthole Surfers, it was all neo-psychedelic, about “the chaos of desire”. Those groups were in a sense laying out these theories too with sound, but also in their interview statements, which had this sort of curious quality of being articulately inarticulate.

And that relates to the contradiction at the heart of Blissed Out, which is that while I’m railing against Meaning in that particular rockist dull'n' worthy sense I'm obviously treating “bliss” as intensely significant and even having a kind of disruptive political power. Likewise I'm talking about being "lost in music, lost for words" while generating reams and reams of extremely wordy prose!

If I was to attempt to somehow unify this blissed-out, neo-psych set of values with the approach of probably the last ten years, it’s that maybe that the jouissance and the significance can be united under the sign of “intensity”. The serious-as-your-life of aesthetic rapture, the seriousness of taking music and the discourse around it intensely seriously, reading a lot into music. Maybe to the point of mania or fanaticism, where you’re taking the interpretive mode to the dizzy limit, achieving an ecstasy of exegesis. As you said on your blog recently this seriousness is not opposed to pleasure, if anything it is an intensification, enrichment, extension of it. It is however opposed to frivolity and to cynicism--which may well be two sides of the same coin.

In the Arctic Monkeys piece, you suggest - contra my continued emphasis on modernist breaks - that we might be entering a new phase where rock innovation is substantially at an end, and that we might have to accustom ourselves to that. Wouldn't accepting this be an admission that rock is far less culturally important than it used to be?

It could be that rock has now become like jazz, in the sense of carrying on, being active and bustling with subgenres, but simply no longer commanding the leading edge/center of music culture role it used to have. Jazz when it arrived was revolutionary and feared in just the same way as rock, and it was also the site of intensity, exactly the kind of seriousness and obsessiveness that we think of as being characteristic to the rock era. There were all these jazz clubs in the UK where intense young people (mostly male) would listen to all these obscure jazz sides and debate the merits of such and such a player, gauge innovations, etc. That apparatus of taking music seriously and hunting and collecting it obsessively, that then shifted its focus gradually to the blues, and that was a major tributary into the emergence of rock.

It could also be larger than that, though: it could be that it’s not a specific genre but music as a whole that has ceased to be at the driving center of the culture. That is something I find hard to get my head around, but you could certainly argue that’s something that’s been creeping up on us for a long while.

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