The announced closure of Hull venues The Polar Bear and Welly, presumably due to loss of revenue during the Covid-19 pandemic, is truly heartbreaking. I’m sorry to say that it has been years since I’ve been to either — I don’t get up to Hull nearly as much as I’d like anymore — but they both defined so much of my teenage years and mid-20s.
Welly was the first club I ever went to. First to their under-18s nights and then numerous times afterwards as “an adult”. It went through a lot of changes over those years — first as a haven for emo kids, scene kids, drum’n’bass kids, goths, punks, and then it was eventually just the go-to student venue.
I remember the first time I was there I was 16 and someone put a cigarette out on my arm in a mosh pit. One of those lung-ruining nights before the smoking ban in 2007. This gurning girl just turned to me and said, “Err ner, ‘ave put me ciggie out on yur aaarm.” To which I said, “Yes,” and then she just walked away — a fond memory, for some reason. The mosh pits in there used to be rough too. It was a weird vibe when these men, that were evidently a lot older than the target clientele, would show up and start swinging fists. They were oddly part of the fabric though. There was a sense of danger at those nights (evenings, really) that was all part of the charm.
I don’t remember any of the songs they used to play in there. A lot of chart stuff. A lot of pop punk. Occasionally, they used to throw out “Out of Space” by the Prodigy and that would always drive me mental. As rare an occasion as this was, it always makes me think of Welly.
I was also in Welly the night that Michael Jackson died. I was stood at the bar leading out to the smoking area when the news filtered around from person to person to person. It was surreal watching the information travel through the throng. Once it eventually reached whoever was on the decks they didn’t play anything but Jackson tunes all night. That was special. (I’m not sure it would have the same effect now, child abuse allegations considered, but it was back then.)
I had a few birthdays in there too. I can’t remember which ones… I’m pretty sure I turned twenty-three in there, along with a couple of ages either side of that. One year, we were stood in the queue for hours on Boxing Day. My friends Will and Louis decided to do a very conspicuous piss each against a nearby wall and got caught by the bouncers who threw them out. I thought that was a birthday ruined. Instead we just had another hour in the queue. He’d forgotten about them by then.
There was also the night we went and then had a house party afterwards somewhere on Princes Avenue. I’d gone back a bit earlier with some friends and a few of us kept drinking quietly in the living room. Someone had loudly advertised the party at closing time, however, and I’ll never forget the sight of a few hundred people trying to pile into this tiny flat above a kebab shop. That night, the lads who ran the local indian took over the streets at sunrise and started a cricket tournament in the middle of the road at 5am. We cheered them on from the roof. That was the last time I went to Welly and didn’t feel old as fuck.
The Polar Bear, by comparison, hardly feels like it has been open long at all. When the Sesh moved there from Linnet & Lark, and when my friend Dan started working there, I’m pretty sure I went every Tuesday whilst I lived in Hull from 2013-14 and again in 2016.
The last time I was there was in March 2017, I think. I saw a Blackest Ever Black DJ set as part of the COUM Transmissions retrospective events. That was special too.
Too many memories. Below are some photos taken at various points over the last five years or so — mostly in the Polar Bear but the last one is from a night at the Welly.
Best wishes to the owners and events organisers. I hope this isn’t really the end. I’m sure those involved will find other ways to keep Hull interesting. I daren’t think about what that city will become if they don’t. So much time and energy has been spent building up Hull’s music scene to be something that the whole city can be genuinely proud of and the team at the Polar Bear have been a massive part of that. This could be a major set back, not just in terms of culture but also for morale. It’s not a city that deserves it.
I had such a lovely evening yesterday. The wonderful Natasha Eves has moved just down the road from me and, after a few months of strange isolation in the big city, surrounded by people but talking to no one, a developing weekly habit of going round for dinner and drinks has been much welcomed.
Last night we ate enchiladas and talked about music for hours and hours. I was reminded of a brief obsession everyone had in 2017 with GALA’s “Free From Desire” — an anthem for Acid Communism if ever there was one, and particularly Fisher’s Lyotardian left-accelerationist version, where “breaking free from desire … doesn’t mean to withdraw from our capacity to desire but to let go of the distinction of what is the pleasure in desire and in suffering”; an trip beyond the pleasure principle.
This feels like an oddly prescient suggestion at present. As my social life slowly starts to recover, it is interesting to hear what people want to do next. No one I know seems to want to go back to the pre-lockdown lifestyles. People are taking up new habits and hobbies — some of which they never previously enjoyed; others that they enjoy but feel guilty about enjoying. I certainly feel strange, considering all I’ve written about community in recent years, being driven by a desire to go live a quiet life somewhere else.
In light of a life under lockdown in a densely populated city like London, I am aware this desire is driven by a slightly intensified misanthropic tendency. At the same time, I want to recalibrate my communities and find the joy in them again — rediscover community freed from desire.
We drove out to the south coast to eat ice cream and read on the beach. It was busy and we were still not used to crowds.
Arriving at Birling Gap and Beachy Head felt like ticking off another spot on my Throbbing Gristle map of Great Britain. Poorly recreating an album cover made me very aware of coastal erosion. The beautiful scenery nevertheless felt wholly detached from this spot’s notoriety as a suicide hot spot, just as it does on the cover of 20 Jazz Funk Greats.
I sat in the brush, getting bitten by ants, reading Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian — “not again in all the world’s turning will there be terrains so wild and barbarous to try whether the stuff of creation may be shaped to man’s will or whether his own heart is not another kind of clay.”
Stray thoughts and observations entered my mind to make up for the gap. Peri-glacial deposits resembled malformed vertebrae down on the shoreline. A Spitfire flew overhead out of time. Burnt-back heather spiralled charred. New growth now rises. We parked for free with our National Trust membership cards. I’m pretty sure there used to be a house here.
This is a view of psychedelia that still needs to be affirmed. It is its function, in this sense, rather than its form, that remains relevant to us today: the way it connotes the manifestation of what is deep within the mind, not simply on its surface. Capitalism is very good at this too, but it cannot be allowed to hold the monopoly on our desires. There are alternatives and they are waiting to be excavated.
I was really, really excited to be asked to contribute something to the Blue Mountain School during the first week of corona quarantine. Working on this kept me sane.
I had read David Keenan’s piece for them just a few weeks ago and quickly explored the rest of the playlists there. To have my own piece in such spectacular company gives me big imposter syndrome vibes.
Many thanks to George Hields for the invitation and I hope, once this is all over, I’ll get the chance to swing by Shoreditch to see the School in the flesh. It’s an incredibly beautiful building.
I was tempted to do a mammoth playlist of deep cuts and weird things. Instead, “Looking for an Exit: Sonic Coordinates for Egress“ is a collection of written fragments, as if excavated from a life-long listening diary. It’s a short hop, skip, jump from 1966 to 2020, sketching a psychedelic line of flight from The Beatles via Led Zeppelin and D’Cruze to Lee Gamble and Nazar.
I’m very aware of the length of the jump made here, clean over the 1980s, and whilst working on this I was very tempted to take detours via Fred Frith and the Supremes and Throbbing Gristle to try and make this a more consistent journey through the songs that have made me look at the world differently but the length of the text ended up dictating to brevity of the mix.
Anyway, I think the fact it isn’t a clean genealogy is probably more fitting to the point being made. Cut through canons and do your own autopsies, particularly of pop culture because there’s so much hidden in plain sight.
As a bonus, here are a few other tracks I wanted to include but which I realised were only additional nodes to what was already a pretty concise (for me at least) argument.
I was interviewed about my book again today. I’d planned to head to this magazine’s offices in Central London to record a podcast but Covid-19 scuppered that almost as soon as we’d organised it. We had a chat over Skype instead and it was really lovely.
Towards the end we were talking about how the stakes of community described in my book have once again changed shape under the current crisis. In Egress, these shifts and changes are documented in real time and, although the book feels like a time capsule now, in my mind, these stakes nonetheless continue to keep shifting and changing every day.
At the end of our conversation, I half-rehearsed an argument in an essay I’ve just finished on D.H. Lawrence and how there’s this sense in his final works — Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Apocalypse — of a kind of individual-collectivity emerging; a kind of new, diagonal relation that escapes both the enforced and restrictive collectivity of the proletariat versus the aristocratic individuality of the bourgeoisie.
It’s what Bataille calls “the community of lovers”. (I’m still so shocked Bataille never wrote on Lawrence — to my knowledge?)
I’m feeling the presence of this Bataillean community quite explicitly under quarantine. With my girlfriend ill, I’ve found myself relating to her in this subtly different way, now that our relationship is devoid of the workaday pressures of wage labour that keep us in a kind of orbit around each other. There’s a new syzygy emerging at the moment instead, of a kind that is typically obstructed.
The distinct pleasure of this relation was thrown into relief when a notification popped up on my phone announcing the death of Bill Withers. I was grateful, in a strange sort of way, that the announcement was not appended by that now-familiar adage: “due to complications caused by Covid-19.”
Bill featured on a lot of the old mixtapes I used to make for my girlfriend when we first met. I ended up listening to all my old favourites when I heard the news.
The drum break that opens Kissing My Love, followed by that wah-wah guitar, is maybe the most perfect Withers number for me — where the instrumentation is as seductive as his voice is.
And then there’s the way he commands the audience at Carnegie Hall on his live album. You can feel him palpably in the air: how the crowd hangs off his every word and how he seems to seduce them with every anecdote. By the time he’s ready to sing another song, they’re in the palm of his hand, and it’s not like he even needs to butter them up. It is electrifying and it is sexy as fuck.
But it’s not sexy in this sort of one-dimensional way. It’s sensual. It has a sort of embodied power. It really gets inside you, but not just in the cliched sense that it “gets in your soul”. Turn that baritone up loud enough and it even makes your organs vibrate.
I was thinking about Withers’ music like this when I put it on because I’ve spent much of the last week copyediting a book that’s coming out soon on Repeater. It’s not my place to say anything about it — it’s called You’re History: keep an eye out for it in the coming months because you should absolutely buy it — but reading it really resonated with this listening session.
It’s a book about women in pop music — some of the biggest and most ubiquitous names in pop, in fact — but it deals with their music in a way that focuses on how it feels rather than merely what it’s saying. The book considers the ways that some of the biggest (and even most derided) pop songs have jarring word plays and seem to linguistically express themselves in a way that looks moronic when seen written down. But that’s the fault of how critical faculties, not the songs themselves. These songs are overlooked because we are obsessed with a style of music journalism that is bizarrely obsessed with lyricism over musicality. Instead, You’re History is a book that explores not what words mean but how sounds feel — particularly the sounds of words or, more abstractly, vocalisations — and how the music itself functions, sensually, beyond the rigid hermeneutics of our present Genius.com era.
It’s the sort of sonic analysis that makes the videos on Genius‘ YouTube channel all too easy to ridicule. Their video on The Backpack Kid’s “Flossin'”, for instance, is comical and absurd because its lyrical content is analysed despite their supposedly abject emptiness but, as becomes clear, what makes the song a hit is its embodied quality — its not a poem set to music but a functional accompaniment to a dance move. In that sense, it’s the dance move that is the hit rather than the song — and this is how the Backpack Kid unabashedly frames the song himself when describing how it came to exist.
So, understood from this position — from the perspective of the song’s intended function — it is Genius that looks utterly one-dimensional and lacking rather than the song itself. It’s blinkers are used to comic effect but it’s still blinkered, reflecting the priorities of an industry at large and the priorities it wrongly impresses upon the listening public.
The book considers plenty of songs that are far, far less contentious than this — the above is more useful for demonstrating Genius‘s own straitjacket than anything else — but they are songs that are nonetheless ubiquitous and supposedly lyrically vapid or absurd. (There’s an in depth analysis of Tom Tom Club’s Wordy Rappinghood, for instance, which is just sublime and had me reaching for my copy of Deleuze’s Logic of Sense — the author indirectly articulates that book’s savouring of irrationality in a way that had me grinning from ear to ear.)
At one point, in order to further bolster why the book is written in this way, the author quotes an essay by Mike Powell for Pitchfork on the value of this kind of music criticism. (Not that the book needs to defend itself but appearing, as it does, some way into the book, the quotation serves to drive home just how invigorating and how largely absent this kind of writing is from the canon of music writing.) Powell writes:
Ultimately the way we talk about music doesn’t come down to prescribed terms, but associations, poetics, and the way language has the potential to open music up rather than shut it down. I remember a friend once telling me that a song sounded like braids to her, as in hair. This wasn’t just an unusual thing to say about music, but an observation that tapped into this particular song’s dense, overlapping rhythmic structure without deferring to words like “syncopation” or “staccato.” A few more riffs on the braid metaphor and you’d have what I’d call an insight: A statement that takes something you thought you already understood and makes you see it in a new way.
So little criticism does this. Not just music criticism but criticism of all kinds. It’s the drudgery of what now passes for “Cultural Studies”. Insightful writing should, instead, be a mode of cultural production in its own right, in the sense that it affects you directly rather than simply ordering and describing a cultural artefact based on standardised opinions and technical understandings.
Writing biologies instead of biographies of music was meant to be a sly condensation of an argument made in my Quietus essay — “we can understand the difference between hauntology and hauntography as being similar to the difference between biology and biography — one orders and describes the events of a life after the fact; the other is a study of life as it is lived, and all the mechanisms and relations that make it possible” — and this forthcoming book from Repeater has given me an example to point to now that I only wish I’d had at my disposal a few months ago.
All of these seemingly disparate threads come back together for me, forming a braid of their own, when reading D.H. Lawrence under corona quarantine. The function of his writing and the unbound eroticism therein is precisely an attempt to unearth the radical insights of feeling and sensuality in this way — what he refers to explicitly as “tenderness”.
Lacking the textural properties of music, Lawrence uses sex to pull all our focus into how desire feels, but it is simply a means to an end. His writing just as often asks us to think about how relationships feel — both romantic and familial — or how the structures under which we live feel. Desire is not only projected onto an object of desire but is embodied — desire and its lack constitute a tethering, and it is the tethering that Lawrence holds firmly in his grasp. When thinking about the subject-object relation, it is the hyphen that Lawrence stimulates.
I’m particularly enchanted by Mellors’ sensual frustrations in Lady Chatterley’s Lover, for instance. In a scene that almost feels comic — it’s the sort of moment of internal tension usually only sated by an angry-dance montage in the movies — Lawrence attempts to describe Mellors’ politically erotic experience of being overcome by a sort of thwarted sexual energy. He’s not horny, exactly — it’s like he feels claustrophobic in his own skin, but he is only made aware of his own interiority in this way because of his capture of capitalist forces. Lawrence writes:
Driven by desire, and by dead of the malevolent Thing outside, he made his round in the wood, slowly, softly. He loved the darkness and folded himself into it. It fitted the turgidity of his desire which, in spite of all, was like a riches: the stirring restlessness of his penis, the stirring fire of his loins! Oh, if only there were other men to be with, to fight that sparkling-electric Thing outside there, to preserve the tenderness of life, the tenderness of women, and the natural riches of desire. If only there were men to fight side by side with! But the men were all outside there, glorifying in the Thing, triumphing or being trodden down in the rush of mechanised greed or of greedy mechanism.
Mellors doesn’t just want to fuck — he wants to fuck up capitalism!
This is how most of Twitter seems to feel right now. Two kinds of tweet jostle for position — “Bring down capitalism!”; “I just want to fuck!”
For Lawrence, these two sentiments aren’t so distinct from one another. This was the function of his writing — a celebration of fucking in all its guises, from sex and violence to revolution and destruction. No dichotomies, no dialectics — just an ever-complicating web of desires.
That’s what I’m really aware of right now under quarantine. The tether between myself and my girlfriend but also the newly strained nature of the tether between myself and everyone else. It’s not one-dimensionally sexual but a sensual complexity. The overbearing cloud of illness drives this home even more. Every hour or so, I pop my head round the bedroom door and ask my girlfriend, “How are you feeling?” I find myself asking this of other people too. Not just “how are you” but how do you feel under the present circumstances — and what is being felt, in every single instance, is the new tension of this tether; the embodied connection between self and other.
It is a tether strummed by other forces the rest of the time but, with those forces abated for the time being, other sensations are emerging. I feel like a spider on a web in a sheltered alcove, each strand connected to someone else in my midst. The slightest breeze will overwhelmingly disturb my present existence. Without such a breeze, however, other tremors are felt even more intensely — tremors from other possible worlds.
I talk a bit about how I got to this point in my life, trying to be a photographer for a bit and why I stopped. I talk about how that connects to my new book Egress and about the context from which the book emerged. Elsewhere in the newsletter, I recommend some stuff I’ve been reading and listening to recently and I also offer up a tip for would-be music writers (which is probably a bit rich coming from me because I’d hardly describe myself as a music writer — I’m a writer who likes music and other people’s writing about music — but I hope it’s of interest nonetheless.)
If music journalism is your passion — whether you love reading about the latest stuff or you want to get involved or you’re already involved but want to feel connected to a wider community — I really recommend signing up for the full version of Todd’s newsletter. It is a weekly inbox highlight for me and a truly formidable one-man magazine — the sort of thing this blog tries to be and which is, frankly, a dying breed.
In a 2012 article for Film Quarterly, Fisher summarised this process as a “confrontation with a cultural impasse: the failure of the future.” Today, we might better understand this cultural impasse as the inertial whiplash of the West post-millennium; a whiplash embodied today by the political discontent of so-called Millennials. This is the irony of the apparent dwindling of hauntology’s relevance for a new generation of bright young things. Whilst Fisher is seen as out of touch by many new readers, the central critique of hauntology has, in fact, become more mainstream — politically, at least — than he could have ever imagined. Greta Thunberg, for example, has captured the attention of the world with her declarations that the future is being stolen from her generation. The same can also still be said of our relationships to our cultural artifacts, but this was stolen from us long ago, with considerably less protesting. Nevertheless, it is a sentiment that goes back some decades. As Boards of Canada most famously declared with the title of their 1998 hauntological masterpiece, music has the right to children. Music also has a right to the future.
RIP Genesis Breyer P-Orridge. The news just broke on Twitter — as it has a habit of doing these days — and it’s hard to know what to say.
There is so much I feel like I must thank Genesis Breyer P-Orridge for: An ability to affirm an amorphous sense of self; a dogged refusal to be what anyone wants you to be; an oppositional creativity as well as an ability to enter into the very depths of things. More than anything, however, on the most banal level, Genesis was responsible for illuminating the weirdness of my own backyard.
As a teenager, having previously internalised and buried the shame of a class position which was visibly usurped by a performative arrogance — my mother was a real-life Hyacinth Bucket and I was growing up to be her protégé — in a city known around the country as a shithole, it was discovering Genesis and Throbbing Gristle that made me think Hull was not such a bad place to be after all. There was poetry here, evidently, and not just the poetry of high society that my mother had a penchant for, but an otherwise evil poetry out to kill all language.
To see Genesis, breaking free of the social shackles I knew all too well, shackles that had won in that dead-end town, and then doing what s/he pleased, was the ultimate inspiration.* I’d already begun to learn about the radicals of the world, far beyond my shithole, but here was Genesis and s/he was ours. As the first domino to topple in my cultural consciousness, s/he led to a fascination with the “lives of the obscure”, as Virginia Woolf once put it, and, fittingly, Genesis increasingly felt like a real-life Orlando, seizing time and space for h/er own aims.
I feel I must add that I never met Genesis although I once had the opportunity. We were sat on opposite aisles of a train back to London from Hull in 2017, following the first weekend of the COUM Transmissions retrospective as part of the City of Culture celebrations.
It was an odd time to find myself in Genesis’s orbit. I’d spent the weekend socialising with Cosey Fanni Tutti that weekend instead, having first emailed her a few years previously, hoping to have a hand in organising the proceedings as a fresh-faced graduate, back in Hull, wanting to see my inspirations represented amongst what I feared would be a sanitised pseudo-corporate affair. When the events finally came around, it was clear that it would be anything but.**
Everyone awkwardly kept their distance from Genesis that weekend, however. Proof copies of Art Sex Music had started to make their way to the press and its revelations about Genesis’s prior behaviour were already being whispered on the winds, and most definitely backstage at that event.
It’s difficult to know how to act when in a room with two people, one of whom has just accused the other of attempted murder in a memoir…
That coloured proceedings indelibly. Genesis’s performance that night — some meandering spoken word thing about memories — felt hollow and superficial. The knowledge coloured my understanding of who Genesis is and was also. This mystic and near-mythical figure re-emerged as precisely those same things, but diminished somehow — a life of tall tales and half-truths and of a hidden energy bubbling under the surface that obviously had a real dark side alongside the nonetheless transgressive productivity of its light.
There are questions that linger about Gen’s conduct over the years. The avant-garde’s Harvey Weinstein? Such a label would surely ring true in some corners if not others. It begs that we try tackle a whole host of questions that I’ve yet to see anyone take seriously. I understand the reticence but I hope it is not completely absent from the coming obituaries.
Genesis Breyer P-Orridge inspired generations of people who I love and admire, no doubt in the same way I was inspired. S/he inspired us to break free of our carnal births and make new ones, form new identities and existences that were psychically nomadic if not physically so. There must come a time, however — surely? — when we have to ask ourselves how much of our lives we’re able to keep running from.
There is only one response that rings true for me right now, so immediately after the news has broken:
Genesis has stopped running. S/he’s dropped her body. Her legacy will continue and no doubt continue to complicate itself as the years go on. Nevertheless, may s/he rest in peace. I’ll be thinking of h/er and h/er loved ones and also thinking of others, who I hope can find a different kind of peace now too.
* The most exciting thing about launching my first book at the ICA this past week has been solely down to its stature in my mind as the place where Throbbing Gristle first penetrated this country’s imagination, with their inaugural performance and exhibition, Prostitution, taking place there in 1973.
** I chronicled that occasion on this blog in a three-parter which you can read here, here, and here.
When did dream pop lose its psychedelia and become the generic soundtrack for every new Netflix teen drama going?
I unashamedly like a lot of weird YA dramas on Netflix. Locke & Key is a good example. Dark is a better one. I liked The Umbrella Academy too. I even continue to have time for Stranger Things despite many being fed up with its pastiching. I think I just have a soft spot for shows that emphasise or try to exaggerate the sheer surreality of adolescence and childhood.
It’s an age old trope, of course. The two-part adaptation of IT might be the most obvious big screen example in recent years but it’s hardly new. Bingeing Locke & Key from my Sunday sick bed today, I feel newly aware of just how far this continuum stretches back.
The show contains numerous references early on, for instance — explicit ones, that is, in the script — to The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. This got me thinking about how, as a kid, I always preferred The Wolves of Willoughby Chase. Then I remembered in the pub last night how I inadvertently started talking about Skellig. On Twitter last week someone blogged about Elidor. Last year I read Alice in Wonderland aloud to my girlfriend before bed, for its own merits and to support a reading of Deleuze’s Logic of Sense…
Across time periods, the strangeness of childhood and adolescence has been fertile ground for telling stories of the weird and the eerie. Perhaps that’s because fairy tales themselves have always been good examples of the weird. Culturally, we like to scare our kids, to install superegos, perhaps, but also I think just because their minds are more easily taken advantage of. It’s a fun kind of transcultural sadism…
This is all very obvious, really, but I guess what I’m trying to affirm here is that, past or present, I’m always interested to see how youth is used as a vector for sociopolitical potentials; how a child’s innately psychedelic perspective allows other worlds and forms of life to emerge in our cultural imaginations.
At times, I find my fascination with these sorts of stories becoming entangled with a sort of nostalgia for a previous social and cultural freedom but I also love to hear the new emerging from an articulation of a sensation I am already familiar with and appreciate the importance of.
Pop music can be great for this too. Lorde’s album Pure Heroine might be one of the best musical distillations of adolescent weirdness from the last decade. It’s an album that I listened to obsessively when it came out, not long after I left university, and I was totally consumed by its songs of teenage outsideness presented with a production style that felt incredibly refreshing. You’d be surprised — in fact, I even surprise myself — just how emotional that album makes me still, as an eerie document of fading innocence. That’s certainly what it felt like to me at the time, fully entering my twenties, newly outside the bubble of full-time education, feeling fully devoid of prospects, instead doubling down on the particular temporalities of unemployment in my hometown where I felt like I was slipping through the cracks into my own subcultural underworld.
I was thinking about all this and more whilst I was watching Locke & Key earlier. I thought about how much I liked the magical realism in the show, even at its most janky. I liked how this weirdness of the Locke family home could permeate the high school environment with surprisingly little resistance whilst the adults are, for the most part, oblivious to the teenagers’ dramas. The plasticity of the teenagers’ brains and the rigidity of the adults made me, as a viewer, feel oddly in between. Both responses were weird. But there was something else that kept pulling me back from this and which made it a really jarring experience, but not in a positive way at all.
The soundtrack could not have been any more generic if it tried.
I don’t know if there’s a name for this or not. There probably is. It’s that corporate pop that all sounds the same and has no message or distinguishable production style. It feels like it’s been made by some sort of hit factory somewhere. I associate it most explicitly with something like Made In Chelsea. It’s wellness pop. Gooped pop. Middle class generic pop made by some quartet who have had a completely frictionless twenties. You’ll know what I mean. Think Bastille and their hundreds of clones. It seems to permeate every teen drama there is, and it’s all the more obvious if a show has a supernatural or paranormal element.
When I think about k-punk’s various requiems for popular modernism, I always feel like we haven’t reached the true depths of its absence yet. The BBC might have sonically unweirded Doctor Who, for instance, but there was still a time recently when the music controllers for popular programming could shoehorn in contemporary oddities. I remember Top Gear car reviews soundtracked by Boards of Canada, for instance, and even though a whole generation might have wishfully modelled their lives after Skins, it felt like very few within its target audience were picking up Animal Collective albums after hearing them soundtrack a point of narrative tension.
Looking back on a show like Skins now — proverbially, at least: to actually rewatch it would be torturous — these sorts of musical decisions made it feel contemporary. It hasn’t aged well but, at the time, it felt like the bleeding edge of… something.
Watching these new weird shows, they feel distinctly devoid of a time — which, ironically, is what makes them feel most now. These scenes with cookie-cutter dream pop make the shows feel culturally disorientated in much the same way that many have claimed a show like Sex Education is. Whereas previous shows were buoyed by well chosen soundtracks these shows are dragged down by a complete lack of sonic imagination. They are defined by a sort of ambient music, especially when diegetic, that serves only to remove any well-scripted weirdness.
Why do I feel like the fault lies with Spotify? Maybe someone better informed can shine a light on the silent death of smart licensing? Maybe music licensing is one of those jobs woefully given over to algorithms? Or maybe this is the trickle down cultural impact of capitalist realism at its most banal?
Whatever the cause, all narratives of new worlds suffer if they’re incapable of referencing the newness of now. How are we meant to find connections between the radical magic of a coming new and the already contemporary if the characters on our screens aren’t given the same opportunity?
It’s almost as if we’re not supposed to. No longer are these strange tales of psychedelic childhoods meant to keep the fire of otherworldly potentials burning. They’re salves. Nothing more.
This stasis doesn’t lie with music licensing alone. I want to offer up another case in point that I’ve been thinking a lot about recently: Gilmore Girls.
My girlfriend just completed an epic rewatch of that show’s seven seasons and I enjoyed watching it myself for the first time — at intervals — alongside her.
The show’s wit still holds up todat and its machine-gun cultural referencing is pretty electric. But I kept thinking: All that aside, what are we left with? A relatable story of a modern middle class family. A girl and her mum, growing up together in Small Town USA. Rori Gilmore’s life aspirations of going to Harvard and joining the rat race as a hot shot journalist are weirdly 00s and bougie but the rapidity of the hypertext dialogue was pretty incredible to me. In fact, it was what made the show so entertaining for me personally. Bands and films and other references, from low culture to high, old to new, pepper every exchange. An otherwise generic sitcom is given a unique energy as it feels like the two central characters are, when not on screen, jacked into a rapidly emerging cyberspace and a contemporary moment of atemporal postmodern cultural proliferation. It’s the sort of metadialogue that has been fetishised in a sitcom like Spaced or, more recently, Community (where it is reduced to a particular trait of an autistic character) but here it exists intergenerationally and effortlessly.
What does this mean, if anything?
I’m not sure. But I’m increasingly disturbed of late that we’re continuing to lose a lot more from our pop culture than we’re aware of. I feel more and more like this is what constituted the “frenzied stasis” of late capitalism for Mark Fisher. The spectacular but superficially new distracts us as we lose far more than is currently being produced to the ambient incursions of capitalist stasis on our cultural imaginations.