As an opening gambit, the following may initially appear to be somewhat convoluted, self-serving, pretentious, meaningless drivel. But please, bear with me. I'm going somewhere with this.
Recently, I had to write an essay on whether History can act as a useful resource for novelists. Before writing it, I had quite an argument with my mum. To sum up, she thought it to be a stupid question: Of course “History” is a useful resource for novelists. Even to write a book in the past-tense is to set it in “History”, surely?
You'll notice, though, that I've chosen to capitalise “History”. On three occasions now, I've even placed it in inverted commas. This is important: “History” is a completely different entity entirely to “the past”.
Briefly, let me explain. “The past” is a loose way of referring to “anything that happened before the right here, the right now”. That cup of tea you made this afternoon. That's a product of “the past”, but, by extension, is it “History”? Well, potentially.
The writing of essays, the theorising, the arguments, the debate, the points of view, the endless rhetoric – that's History. Put very, very, very simply, “History” is any attempt to interpret or make sense of the events of “the past”. That cup of tea you made in “the past”. If scholars later argue that, had you not made that cup of tea, life itself as we know it would today be unrecognisable – then it would become History.
The above question, then, wasn't asking me to consider as to whether novelists could find inspiration from “the past”. Rather, it was asking me to consider as to whether these “Historical” arguments and debates (mainly, arguments) could be of any use to Johnny Writer. Can a fresh interpretation of Event X make for a good novel? That sort of thing.
It got me thinking. A lot of things do. The conclusion I've come to is that everyone – in all walks of life – attempts to make “History” out of anything. Even if they don't themselves realise that they're doing it. This, of course, is just a fancy way of saying that “people are going to argue”. Well, yes. But on a much deeper level is a search for meaning, for definition, for order.
You'll find it everywhere. Nothing ever exists in a vacuum. That cup of tea, for instance – what does it say about you? What does it say about your attitudes toward globalisation, imperialism, nutrition, breakfast? Everything is instantly suggestive of about a thousand other things. In order to make sense of this, people look for patterns.
Now, music journalism. This search for something – anything – it's rife in the world of music journalism. It's not enough to just report. Ever. Beyond (and within) the previews, reviews, reports, musings and interviews is a seemingly endless search for patterns, for trends. And, whilst this search is taking place, there's a few individuals who – perhaps as part of their own attempt to make sense of things – will look for trends amongst the search for trends.
That's me. Hello. The “History” of music goes far beyond the simple chronology of who wrote, released and recorded what. Like all Histories, nothing is canonical. As much as the likes of such publications NME and Pitchfork would like you to believe, nobody's “take” is ever doctrinal. For example, take the chronic debates concerning genre. This in itself is often a nightmare for anybody with more than a passing interest in music. For some reason, it's important that people know whether the music they're listening to is rock, punk, punk-rock, alternative, alternative rock, indie, indie-rock or dub-step.
The real headache, though, is in deducing as to how these billions of sub-genres came to be. Some could argue 'til they're red in the face over the evolution of just one branch of the lush tree of rock music. Metal – does its roots lie in the distorted staccato riff of “You Really Got Me” by The Kinks, or in the blistering sonic assaults of Blue Cheer? Or, we're all bands simply lacking balls before Deep Purple, Sabbath, Zeppelin? And then what? How could one ever, for instance, ever argue that if you start with a single Kinks riff and take it from there, eventually and inevitably you'll always end up with Napalm Death?
Napalm Death: Picking up directly where The Kinks left off.
The biggest question though, is “does it even matter?”. What difference does it make if you're into rock, pop, classical, jazz, anything? It's all music, surely? You listen to what you like and leave it at that. But it doesn't end there. No. Always the search for new genres, too. The more they come to define our times, the better. Ironically, though, the more widespread and accepted become these new terminologies, the more meaningless such terminologies eventually become. Indie music – any music created by anyone not signed to a major label? This has never been the case. I'm sure those legions of post-grindcore skin-heads who fill the bills of countless “unsigned” band nights the world over would have something pretty caustic to say were you to dare describe their music as “indie”.
I once thought I had it. I asked myself, what is “pop music”? I concluded that, pop meaning “popular”, all music is “pop”music seeing as the only alternative would be “unpop music”. Unpopular. And who listens to that? Nobody. Therefore, all music is “pop music”,as all music is in some way “popular”. This argument, however, died on its arse the second a part of me asked, “what about Gary Glitter?”.
No, the only reason any of these debates ever takes place – the only reason we're ever so argumentative in regards to genre – is because of the crucial question of identity. We define ourselves in terms of the music we listen to. It never suffices to just say “I like music”, because everyone likes music. No shit! What sort of music do you like? I need to know, because I need to know as to whether you count as a human being.
This is why the aforementioned NME is so keen on identifying “new” genres. The more trimmings, the better. Every time they “identify” a new “movement”, it always comes hand in hand with an entire lifestyle. Often – that is, always – the lifestyle will come to be more important than the music itself. Who cares about music? It all sounds so similar anyway. The clothes, though – the clothes! - and the drugs, and the glow sticks, and the attitude – the attitude, man – that's where it's at.
Over the past decade, the NME has been desperate to find a “movement” which would define a generation as succinctly and effectively as had disco and punk in the '70s, Acid-House and Britpop in the '90s. Every year there seemed to be something new. It began, if I recall correctly, with the “New Rock Revolution”. The Strokes. The White Stripes. Rock music was exciting again! Suddenly everyone pretended that they'd only ever admitted to listening to Travis for lack of anything better to listen to. However, this “New Rock Revolution” didn't seem to last. I'm not sure why. Perhaps the rehashed garage-rock was too sonically similar to a lot that had come before. Whatever the case, they were in no time at all looking for something new.
Then came 2003. Remember 2003? They proclaimed it to be “the third summer of love”. The first revolved around Woodstock, Hendrix, LSD; the second around 808 State, ecstasy. Well, third times a charm! Once again the NME had identified a cluster of bands who seemed to have a similar agenda – sunshine! Hazy, summery psychedelic music. The Bees, The Polyphonic Spree, The Thrills. They even had a unifying drug of choice – mushrooms. Well, maybe not The Polyphonic Spree. Or The Thrills. Or...anyone. Probably not even The Bees. Nevertheless, though, that third “summer of love” was recognised as the high-point for this new “shroomadelica” movement. Psychedelic music made on mushrooms rather than LSD, you see. I kid you not.
Well, this didn't last, either. Goddammit, must have shouted the NME. How are we supposed to define ourselves or anyone if music continues to insist upon being so transient? Lucky for them, though, after an extremely short lived “summer of ska” - (which consisted of nothing more than an album by a Liverpool band called The Dead 60s and a new brass section for The Ordinary Boys – both of whom opened for Morrissey. Now that's a movement!) - came a slew of cool new British bands.
This was very important. A new revolution! The already, by this point, ridiculed “New Rock Revolution” was pretty much solely an American affair. Now, though, there were suddenly British bands to care about. Franz Ferdinand. The Futureheads. Maximo Park. Bloc Party. The Kaiser Chiefs. Gang of Four were suddenly, it seems, the most influential band of the past ever. Everyone sounded so angular, so post-punky. All guitars were trebly and tense, all vocals yelped. I don't think the NME ever got round to giving this exciting new movement a name. Or, if they did, it's escaped me. I think they were just too excited by the notion that all of these bands were British. It was “cool” to be British again. But the term “Cool Britannia” had already been used to describe Britpop. And, no matter how compressed and “anthemnic” became the sound of The Kaiser Chiefs, the NME apparently could never bring themselves to declare that we were in the midst of a Britpop revival. No, man. It had to be new! We can't define ourselves in terms of the last decade! We need something of our own. I'm reminded, at this point, of the scene from Jarhead, the Gulf War drama, in which a passing helicopter blasts out the haunted strains of The Doors' “Break on Through”. “We haven't even got our own music”, laments Jake Gyllenhall's character.
Pictured: British music scene circa 2004
Concurrently, a little band called The Libertines were making the rounds. The NME were quite muted in their coverage of this band. I think they described them as “the most important band in the world” or something. I don't know. But, apparently under their noses, this little outfit became impossibly popular before disintegrating in a scummy brown puff of heroin and rancid sweat. They were gone. And, in their wake, came suddenly the search for “the new Libertines”. Cue countless identikit bands who slurred in regional accents half-arsed lyrics about bouncers and nights out over jangly, detuned guitars – barely standing, eyes half-open, soaked in gin, sweat and piss. Heroin chique. Abhorrent. The absolute low-point was an album by a band called Little Man Tate. They called their album “About What We Know”. Music, suddenly, didn't really seem so exciting.
All this, however, was just paving the way for a monumentally successful outfit with a stupid name and permanently bemused facial expressions. The Arctic Monkeys. They took the sound and energy of The Libertines but replaced the slurred heroin nonsense with...well, some people call it poetry. Some rate singer Alex Turner as a lyricist on the level of Dylan, Cohen, Morrissey. Well, I'm not going to argue with that. To each their own, it takes all sorts etc. But, forgive me, at this point I dropped out.
See, it was 2005, we were halfway through a new decade, and it seemed that the NME had found their “defining” band. It wasn't necessarily ambivalence towards The Arctic Monkeys which made me jump ship, though. In their constant search for meaning – their constant making of their own History – the NME were also constantly in the process of rewriting History. It's to be expected, I know. Like I said, nothing's doctrinal. Ever. But when they made a list of “The Most Important British Albums of All Time”, placed the Arctic Monkey's debut at no.2, and left no room at all for the grandiose sonic adventures of the likes of Pink Floyd, Genesis and Yes – well, that was the last straw. Frankly, I didn't even want to be part of a generation which defined itself on such terms that ignored the importance of “The Dark Side Of The Moon”.
Amen, brother. Amen.
I think I got out just in time, too. Remember what came next? 2007? Day-glo, glow sticks, strobe lighting? No? The Klaxons? That ring any bells? No? You want me to say it, don't you? OK. I'll say it. But God help me. You know not what you ask of me...
...New Rave. Yeah. The overall worthiness of a “scene” or “movement” can, I find, be judged in terms of the speed at which people cringe at its mentioning. I think there are even people born after the arrival of The Simpsons who'll harbour embarrassing New Rave memories. Still, though. At least it's not Nu Metal. Remember Nu Metal? It was the worst music ever. Objectively speaking. I know.
Anyway, like I said, it's all to do with identity. Even “History” - as in, proper “1066 and all that” History – all the debates seem to take place in the interests of better understanding ourselves. Indeed, things come full circle the second one begins to use an era's Historical writings as a means of exploring the ethics and attitudes of the era in which it was written. The Historians of Ancient Rome, for example, as well as providing fascinating insight into such cultures who never got round to actually, you know, writing things down – also happen to tell us about issues much closer to our be-toga'd friends' hearts.
They always used to begin their “Histories” with dedications to the current emperor and with summative contemporary accounts of whichever nation or people they were writing about. It doesn't take a Historian to understand just how useful this would prove to anybody trying to garner an insight into Ancient Roman attitudes and understandings. They understood the arch importance of writing their own History. The Roman Empire, then – the NME of its day, public executions and all.
Conor McNicholas circa AD30
All of the above, though, might only make sense to a current (or former) reader of the NME. At the very least, I suppose, an awareness of who they are and what they might represent would be necessary. But that, my friends, is the whole point.
For the entirety of the past decade, so many people seemed to view preceding generations with desperately jealous eyes. They had their Woodstocks, their Orbital raves, their Sex Pistols, their loon-pants and their discos – they had it all! And what did we have? Nothing. Worse than nothing! Too much – all of it transient.
But, don't you see, it's that “too much” which, itself, acts as the defining “trend” of the past-decade. Thanks to the internet, music quickly became a lot easier to obtain than it had for any previous generation. More importantly, it became a lot cheaper to obtain. Suddenly it was possible to hear everything – as much – or, as little – as you wanted.
And therein lied the problem for a generation who not only had such an abundance, but also knew things to be no other way. Of course we would initially attempt to define movements and trends in such familiar terms as had worked for previous generations – what else had we to go by? The result of this, though, was not some kind of defining “movement” or “scene” for an entire generation. Rather, it was a mess of genres, sub-genres and fly-by-night notions of “cool”.
And that's it. That's how the music of the first decade of the twenty-first century will be remembered. Not via some catch-all term such as “punk” or “new-wave” or “Britpop”. Rather, via a distinct lack of anything so definitive.
Instead, I believe that as a decade (and a generation) – in future years the noughties will be remembered not by a defining set of bands or genres. Rather, it will be remembered in terms of exactly the means which served to make so much music so very accessible and exciting in the first place. I'm speaking of the inevitable products of such a confusing array of genres, sub-genres, movements, themes and trends. Unwittingly, people already tend to define themselves as such.
Think of youth-culture. Think of punks, of hippies, of mods, of rockers, of metalheads, emos or whatever. Well, pretty soon, to this list we'll be adding such disparate clans and tribes as “The NME Reader”. “The Pitchfork Reader”. “The Blogger”. “The Quietus Collective”. “The ATP attendant”.
To put it succinctly, to that list we'll soon be adding “The Scenester”.
(Thunder, lightning, etc.)