Friday, 20 April 2012

Where is our music?

I just watched a BBC documentary on reggae because my parents lived through that era - they were at the heart of it, the 1970s in Handsworth, the reggae capital of Britain. Handsworth is an area of inner city Birmingham. Back in the 70s and to this day, it has been a centre for immigration, a place where the white students and working class were thrown together with black and Asian second generation kids, where police racism found its counter-pole in mixed-race bands and gangs, one of the episodes in history where the oppressive state managed to unite potential enemies in the complicity of rebellion. The programme followed reggae from its roots to its later commercialisation - from Bob Marley and Steel Pulse to UB40.

It is obviously in the nature of a retrospective documentary to simplify a complex era, make everything seem black and white as such. The forces of conservatism and liberalism are the perpetual intertwined threads, and documentaries make it their aim to show the two clear sides of the argument - in this case, the anti-reggae mainstream and the pioneering young groups of the time, the former the voice of the past, and the latter progression. For this reason, it's easy to come to the conclusion that those grainy videos and dancing 80s teenagers with dreadlocks were not actually representative of the time - they're just one movement in a much wider social context, and the opposition were not united against them: what most programmes like that miss is the general sense of apathy felt by the majority. I doubt many housewives or farmers in 1981 really cared about Bob Marley's death.

Even then, the videos and the ideas do seem momentous: the 1980s Handworth riots happened, they represented genuine social unrest, and the music was a by-product of sentiments in the communities.

Where is our music? That's what I want to know. Where is this millenium's movement? We have social unrest - but what were the student protesters listening to? Was it really Radio 1? Where has the niche gone?

My first idea is that it's all just me. There are lots of niches that will be remembered and turned into documentaries in 20 years' time, it's just that I'm either ignorant of them or apathetic towards them. I don't care about mockney rapping or dubstep so I'm out of the loop when it comes to what will be defined as the sound of the early 21st century. Others would claim the 'scene' to be our niche, but it's pretty much one of the two mainstream options these days: as a teen, you either watch the X Factor or you dye your hair black and listen to My Chemical Romance. 'Emo' and 'scene' are as popular as many other genres.

So, I could just be blind to the decent niche that I fit into. To solve my ego-centric question of why I have to go looking abroad or into the past for music I like, I tried to think of what people of my 'sort' listen to - my age, my gender, my peergroup. I'm usually underwhelmed - it's a mixture, often, of the mainstream. Not necessarily lacking in talent, but certainly not a musical 'movement', carrying political affiliations or messages or diverging from what's gone before. For example, what Beyoncé offers isn't bad, but it isn't a way of life, it's good pop. And in my view, pop is a slowly drifting ship tied to the commercial docks, with niche genres the rowboats that sometimes find themselves on the open sea. The thrills don't come from being on board the cruise liner; that's a smooth, dull ride.

Another thought: maybe the internet is killing that kind of niche movement. Perhaps by being able to find what's going on in Canada, Japan, Korea, Australia, my generation is breaking the mould; we no longer have to swarm around one genre at a time, we can stick our proboscises into all sorts across the world, and use the net to contact other lovers of our favourite genres, which is a kind of musical blood letting - it loses its charge and intensity at a particular moment because its communities are so geographically unconcentrated, and have no need to seek out peers in vivo; they have them in vitro, online.

Also, of course, there is the issue of illegal downloading: our new global method of music transmission doesn't get noticed because niche music loved by tech-literate young people is more likely to be siphoned into our Music folders from than bought legitimately, so it doesn't make the charts or the bands don't sell enough to get promotion. We are killing our future documentaries, people. Do you want to be on TV or not? Stop it!

But yes. The whole thrust of today's post is this: I reckon my socio-cultural segment of this generation are the first middle-class young adults in a long time not to have a united front, musically. I have no idea if my peers are listening, en masse, to anything that the population isn't. That's at the core of it: is there any music unique to the group that I call 'us', or is it all being universalised by capitalism? We want to be original in at least a superficial way, find ourselves united as a collective (but an exclusive one, and one that listens to music we like personally). A more personal question - does that 'we' even exist? Is society losing its sharp edges, its social definition? Do I have a peer group, or am I just me?

The larger the audience, the more music has to cater for everyone to keep its fans, and so often becomes bland and the lyrics vague. I'd like to discover some music that isn't bland, something that's happening in my country, with lyrics which I can relate to, like reggae and two-tone spoke to my parents and their friends - like beat music or punk spoke to others.

Thursday, 12 April 2012

Of Montreal vs Marmaduke Duke

If you've read this for a while, you'll know that my music taste fluctuates seasonally - in winter, I ply you with my Seasonal Affective Disorder and am generally a miserable sod, until the springtime when I find sunshine bands and am generally a miserable sod with manic patches. About three years ago, I loved Biffy Clyro (winter) and then Simon Neil went and made an album with Marmaduke Duke (summer). This year, I've gone from Portishead to of Montreal. I sense distinct similarities between the style of song which heralds my sunshine. Compare (and note how the music taste has improved).