“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. From Tottenham Hale, up through Edmonton. To Enfield. I travel in that way to attend the college, at Capel Manor. And this means I hear a lot from 17 year olds. Young London so savvy and 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’s new tune ‘Count on Me‘. It sounds to me like a beautiful facsimile of any given output of pop/dance records from around the year of 1992. And I wonder how this must sound to the 17 year old, sat across from me on the bus.
Ghost Box. Victorian postcards, Edwardian mannerisms. An art nouveau poster advertising Parisian tobacco. Play out to someone who is 17 years of age. Where does this nostalgic radio production sound for the kids of today? All I can hear is a rushing noise; faint aural traces of some aspecific mid-1990s history playing at low-level ambiance in the background of my mornings. Good Pop Music. Musical immediacy only valuable in terms of what it sounds like, reminder or stand-in for a lost period of time. A culture that is no longer with us?
But what is? Because when the music I hear, today, attempts to present some rousing definition of what the present is actually about, there’s a worrying and bland resignation underlining the tune. This morning we heard Ellie Golding with her new single ‘Burn‘. In the chorus of ‘Burn’, here, Ellie implores us to “Burn it up, up, up so they can put it out, out, out.” And I am irked by the ‘so’, the idea that we might only burn something in order for them to put it out. Equally, the award-winning combination of Ne-Yo, Akon and David Guetta coming together for a hit pop tune where the collected chorus boasts of how these superstars “Work hard, Play hard.”
Again, “Work hard, Play hard.”
As if working hard is part of it now. The call centre. The security on the door at Primark. The night shift on reception at a Travel Lodge in a deserted night time business park. Was pop music not meant to inspire the escape? Rather than reify and shore up the monotony and drudgery of life. (“O Life… with all its thistles and thorns,” the Reverend Macleod of the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland, the Zoan Chapel, Whitechapel, recently). The chorus to ‘Play Hard’ rides out over Mr Guetta’s remix 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?’
The Sounds of the Summer. Another song which gets played on almost every single bus journey is ‘Wake me Up!‘ by the Swedish producer Avicii. The fucking faux-folk songwriter/singer, tells us that because he’s “caught up in a dream.” He thinks ” 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? I look at the posture of these kids and they’ve got no energy. A nation of sloths, rising.
What do any of us gain from a popular culture except a grim resignation to the stale aesthetics 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.
Maybe I’m listening too hard. The echoes of the past sound convincing to me. I feel like I don’t understand anymore. Suddenly, I’m almost 30. Maybe I’m not supposed to.