Thursday, June 02, 2011

Popular culture is not what popular culture was.

Guest post by Sam Page.

“We’re Not the Radio Movement, Every Station needs a Good Tuning.”*

In the first chapter of his book, Listen to This, the New Yorker music journalist Alex Ross describes a process of how classical music became insular, how it stopped being relevant and connected to the mass public consciousness. He referred to the process as “the sacralzation of music” and “the fetishizing of the past”:

“Classical music began to take on cultlike aspects. The written score became a sacred object; improvisation was gradually phased out. Concert halls grew quiet and reserved, habits and attire formal.”

This morning (2 June 2011) BBC Radio4’s Today programme - not the first place many would look for an argument on the ‘hip’ and the ‘cool’ - featured the brief discussion on if “retromania” was “stifling pop culture?” Simon Reynolds, the author of Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to its Own Past, arguing it was; someone else putting forth the suggestion that genres like grime are keeping pop music fresh. And does seem today that the 80s is more popular than ever, and the bands selling the biggest number of gig tickets are reconstituted ones. However, a key feature missed in the argument was the idea of the popular base.

Since the advent of the mass internet and mp3s, there has been an endless stream of articles about the decline in music sales. Major labels whine on and on, in a seemingly never ceaseless plea for someone to please buy the bile they decided to sign between a coke binge and sexually abusing sea life. However, the BPI recorded in 2009 that 116 (digital) million singles were sold in the UK, compared to 2002’s 43.9m (physical) singles (2002 has been cited as a high point for CD sales). Digital singles were up last year, too.

Sam Page pondering music in Copenhagen
The key difference is arguably how it is sold and how much money the record companies make. The Guardian reported in 2009 that Florence and the Machine’s Rabbit Heart (Raise It Up) sold a total of 64 (physical) copies to make it to the chart position of 16. Something that is quite shocking, and quite contrasting the above overall figure. Florence and the Machine headlined a few festivals that summer, and remain a popular band. On the other side of the scale, Eminem’s Love the Way You Lie, featuring the umbrella salesperson Rhianna, sold 840,000 (digital) copies in 2010. The scale of what can be called popular music today is very, very steep.

While there is evidently still room for mass-appeal in music, the internet has radically changed things. Frequent complaints can be heard about the state of music today: two friends have both said the one good thing the Tory’s can do is bring back is angry music in popular consciousness. Crufts-like music shows like the X-Factor seem to make and break who is the popular consciousness. However, the legendry sludge band the Melvins made it into the US Billboard top 200 for the first time in their 26 year career with their 19th (bloody excellent) album “The Bride Screamed Murder.” It is not their biggest selling album. However, this begs the question: why are we discussing what is popular” rather than what does popular mean today?

“What I refuse to accept is that one kind of music soothes the mind and another kind soothes the soul. It depends on whose mind, whose soul.” (Alex Ross, Listen to This)

The internet is an amazing tool, even if Adam Curtis is probably right in his cynical attitude towards it. The diversity and the possibility of the net has thrown popular music into turmoil, and this has been evident for a while now. For those who thrive on “underground” music, the internet has been wonderful in many ways. Never before can we access as many bands, musicians and ideas if we want to. A little searching can reveal a global, healthy, vibrant, interesting, realm of music that is well rounded as you want to make it. While the old hands still create what is popular, we can now live the genuine possibility of a blissful existence, away from BBC Radio1 and all its bile. The internet has bought around the idea of the possibility, if not actuality, of picking and choosing to the variety one likes. Arguably, what it reveals for mostly is the illusion of choice.

Simon Reynolds seems to be observing the invention of a tradition: reinventing the past as we pick from it. However, what is popular culture is not what popular culture was. And, what is playing in the charts does arguably not reflect is playing on people’s ipods. Ultimately, we need to stop talking of “Popular” music and “Underground” music, or of any fixed genres. If we carry on treating music the way we are, there’s a fair-to-good chance that the music of today will come to resemble the world of “classical” music. We need to stop talking of popular music, and start listening to music again, to remember it is more than a commodity to be sold. It is music.

* Da Skywalkers, “Radio Movement,” Heartache & Scars (Household Name, 2004):

** Sam did not listen to music while he wrote this. He needed to concentrate. Otherwise, he has currently not filed away the copies of works by Charles Mingus, Nas, Slade, Roxy Music, Between the Buried and Me, Mike Watt, Prince, Marnie Stern, Hella, The Pogues, Faces, Tera Melos, Queen, Big Boi, Three Trapped Tigers, Death Grips, Ice Cube, Freestyle Fellowship, The Arteries, and Charming Hostess.

*** Follow him on twitter at

1 comment:

  1. Culture becomes popular with the people in following it. Its the nature of the people that impacts a lot.