- “You’re obliged to pretend respect for people and institutions you think absurd. You live attached in a cowardly fashion to moral and social conventions you despise, condemn and know lack all foundation. It is that permanent contradiction between your ideas and desires and all the dead formalities and vain pretenses of your civilization which makes you sad, troubled and unbalanced. In that intolerable conflict you lose all joy of life and all feeling of personality, because at every moment they suppress and restrain and check the free play of your powers. That’s the poisoned and mortal wound of the civilized world.” Octave Mirbeau, Garden of Tortures.
Every day I take the bus. Tottenham Hale. Edmonton. Enfield. I travel in that order to attend the college at Capel Manor. And this means I hear a lot from 17 year olds. Young London so savvy, so nonchalant. The radio, on the journey there and back, plays a constant song.
Calvin Harris told me that radio has never sounded so good. I must dispute this.
We have just heard Chase and Status feat. Moko’s new tune ‘Count on Me‘. It sounds to me like a beautiful facsimile of any given sample of pop/dance output from around the year 1992. And I wonder how this must sound to the 17 year olds, sat beside me. Think of Ghost Box. Think of how Victorian postcards, Edwardian mannerisms or Art Nouveau advertising for Parisian tobacco play out to someone of my generation. And consider how the nostalgic radio production must sound for the kids of today. Faint aural traces of some aspecific middle-distance history playing low-level in the background. What does music mean when its immediacy is only valuable in terms of how it serves as some reminder or stand-in signifier of a time or culture that is no longer with us?
And when pop music du jour attempts to define or present some rousing conception of what today is actually about, I find a worrying sense of resignation underlines the lyrics and ethos. This morning we heard Ellie Golding with her new single ‘Burn‘. Here, Ellie’s chorus implores us to “Burn it up, up, up so they can put it out, out, out.” I am curious as to the ‘so’, the idea that we might only burn something in order for them to put it out. Or the unexpected combination of Ne-Yo, Akon and super-producer David Guetta coming together for a hit pop tune whose chorus explains how these superstars “Work hard, Play hard.” Again, “Work hard, Play hard.” As if working hard is part of rock ‘n’ roll. The call centre. The night shift on reception at a Travel Lodge in a deserted business park. The security on the door at Primark. Was pop music not meant to inspire escape, or freedom? Rather than reify and shore up the monotony and drudgery of life. The chorus plays out over Mr Guetta’s remixing of Alice Deejay’s ‘Do You Think You’re Better Off Alone?‘.
I drift off into a reverie, imagining a vision of the future as a happy, well-fed inter-generational community of mixed-race and mix-cultured Londoners working hard on some outdoor task. Their cheaply printed tools assist with the work, rather than dominating or demeaning it. To make their labour more palatable, they are singing communally. To the unaccustomed ear, they sing what sounds like a layered but contemporary Gregorian Chant. It is actually an intricate vocal rendition of Alice Deejay’s ‘Do You Think You’re Better Off Alone?’
What are these songs of today actually communicating to the youth? Another song which gets played on almost every journey is ‘Wake me Up!‘ by the Swedish producer Avicii. Here, the faux-folk singer/songwriter, tells us that ‘They say I’m caught up in a dream. Well life will pass me by if I don’t open up my eyes. Well that’s fine by me.” Why is it fine if life passes one by? More and more, I can see a nation of children lacking energy.
What do any of us gain from a popular culture except a grim resignation to a stale aesthetic of mainstream-sanctioned rappers boasting over bland euro-house synth noises). They’ve just offered us the chance to win tickets to meet Taylor Swift in person.
I don’t understand anymore…