Monday, June 13, 2011

Simon Reynolds on "decor for life"

This is from the current issue of The Wire magazine. Simon Reynolds' latest book, Retromania, came out very recently and I look forward to cracking it soon.

'Underground', in 2011, means creating an atmosphere of cultural intimacy. So the most apt comparison for where do-it-yourself music is today might be Etsy, the online market for handmade and vintage items. Not only is the economic structure similar — small entrepreneurs selling their wares at fairs or through specialist boutiques but doing most of their business online — but the aesthetic sensibility overlaps. There are the same vintage materials and formats (T-shirts with pictures of old-fashioned typewriters, notepads that repurpose the covers of 1970s textbooks), the same penchant for slow unwieldy production methods, even similar iconography (lots of Etsy stationery features animals and birds, particularly owls!)

But what this analogy leads onto is the unsettling thought that underground music making is becoming a niche market, a form of hip(ster) consumerism that slots right next to distressed furniture, microbrew beer, artisanal cheese and vintage clothing. No longer art as an intervention in the battlefield of culture, but art as 'décor for life'.

I agree with Simon to a greater extent. The two questions I ask are:

1. Have uncertain times, in concert with lives led online where there is little reliable constancy, led people to embrace comforting, often infantile tropes?

2. Were the culture wars over when ever greater media divergence (across all platforms) meant that the great, abstract "water cooler moment" disappeared and one could simply ignore the culture you didn't like? Have most of the guns simply been put away?


Pete Hindle said...

These are some tough questions you're pitching, so I expect that you'll probably get less response than when you talk about comic-book/cartoon issues.

In some respects, this is a very timely question. The publication of Eli Parsiers' "The Filter Bubble", talks about how internet search has, since 2009, been refined to give you a range of hits from the areas where it is thought you will want to look. I think his argument is that this is essential reductive, and that we'll never get the full breadth of culture in the same way that we would with unfiltered browsing of a bookshop, because we will always be stuck within a limited intellectual ghetto.

Do I believe that? Hmmm, not sure. I certainly don't respect the way that larger institutions, such as governments, are treating the divergence of media. There seems to be a great reluctance to take hard positions on things that would be of benefit to society, such as the decriminalisation of homosexuality in the 1960s. Instead, a market-lead approach is feted as being the best solution for all problems.

Lassiez-faire economics do not, however, encourage people to pick up an academic text for fun, or to seek out things that are challenging. We're seeing the effect of that in the current crop of mass-culture hits - a point that is perhaps parallel to what Reynolds is saying in the above excerpt.

But at the same time, we are also having more complex stories, and more in-depth discussion of topics. The Wire is often cited here, but the recent Adam Curtis documentary show "All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace" could as easily be used as evidence for people willing to engage with hard ideas. It's not just contemporary material either, as Carl Sagan's Cosmos had a bit of an internet-led resurgence recently. Perhaps there will always be people who want to understand things in more depth than the invisible hand will offer.

Sorry for the mega-comment! I don't even want to start talking about the culture wars (although I would say that they were far from over) as I'm sure I'd just ramble on. Interesting to see your choice of non-fiction reading.

John A said...

No need to apologise, your reply was very interesting! I read it all twice.

Sigivald said...

Decor for life? Oh, like a record collection, right.

I'm not sure I believe "underground music" was ever really "intervention in the battlefield of culture". (Sounds like some crap Malcolm MacLaren would have made up to make the Sex Pistols sound like something more than a money-making scheme... or that a pretentious band might convince themselves of because they don't realize how unimportant they actually are, like every band.)

The only difference I see between "underground" (or I think more aptly "indie") music now and 20 years ago is that now you can get it online rather than via mail-order; but it's never been reliably and widely available locally in most markets.

That is why it's underground; because it's not "popular" enough to be in major distribution channels.

The internet hasn't made it a niche - it's made it less of one.

(Part of it is also that I come at "underground music" from an experimental/industrial/black metal sort of perspective, rather than the "indie rock" one, I think.)

To answer your #2 question, I think you're right.

There is no culture war in music - because there's no longer a single shared culture of music.

I think this is unequivocally for the best.

Really, there never was such a monoculture in the "modern" era. There's always been so much that nobody could follow all of it, and people have always been able to immerse themselves in the sort they wanted and ignore the rest.

(Even in the glory days of radio pop, you could still turn the radio off, or listen to the classical channel.)

(See here and here for a professional music reviewer's take.)

K said...

I don't know much about underground music, but I would certainly go along with much of this. I've been involved in "fandom", where you can very much immerse yourself in what you like and ignore what you don't, and I'm also one of the "crafty" people. I don't sell on Etsy but I know a lot of people who do.

There's a palpable yearning for authenticity - with a sort of hierarchy embedded in it. Stuff that you make yourself at the top of the tree, then stuff that is handmade by indie craftspeople. Then there are favoured commercial producers. Knitting is a complex activity because you can simultaneously make stuff yourself and patronise indie craftspeople (pattern-writers, yarn dyers).

And yes, owls pervade, also references to *Doctor Who* and computer games. And what is more comforting/infantile than a handknitted sweater or blanket?

Don't get me wrong: I do the crafty stuff because I enjoy it, and if I didn't have a day job and made more saleable things, I might well go the Etsy route. I'm not saying there's anything wrong with comfort (and cutesyness, in moderation). But I do wonder what my great-grandparents would think about the way in which we live lives where we don't *need* to labour to make things by hand... yet lots of us still do.

Joanna said...

Well, this prompts my first comment in three years of reading your comic! I think you are absolutely right that uncertain times have prompted a desire for a safe, undemanding, nostalgic aesthetic. As 'K' said, there is a hunger for authenticity, but it's a pretty undemanding authenticity. I read a lot of design blogs and I'm struck by the extent to which handcrafting is given a moral value. Buying a table carved by hand is morally better than buying one made by a machine - even if you spend $1000 more on the handcrafted table. I'm all for quality design and workmanship but I'm not sure it has the kind of moral importance it tends to be given. You want authenticity? Go spend a few years working in a refugee camp or volunteer in a women's shelter, don't knit a sweater. Morality, ditto.

K said...

Yes! What Joanna says is the sort of thing I was feebly groping towards.

Not that it isn't fun to make stuff, and the results can be cool. But knitting your own sweaters does not necessarily have a moral value (and it doesn't mean you've nobly opted out of the tyranny of fashion, or evil capitalism, or whatever, either). I imagine the same goes for playing in a band or whatever.

There are some things it's fun to do, and if someone can make a living at it, then good luck to them (and it's probably not as much fun if you do it every day, either). But sometimes fun is... just fun.