On a recent trip to the Peak District, I stopped by Hadfield, the location for Royston Vasey in the TV series The League of Gentlemen. I didn’t see Tubbs and Edward, unfortunately, but I did see a Daily Mail branded newsagents wishing us Merry Christmas and a surprisingly sexy pie advert. Also good to know British Rail still run there, as I could have sworn it was privatised in 1993.
A new ice-cream parlour has opened opposite my house and it’s a bit grim. It’s a chain, apparently: Basingstoke, Plymouth, Oxford… There’s nothing wrong with the place, really. It’s just the branding: The name, the signage, the pink and black and red and white interior.
The owners are clearly ignorant of the rules of the game. The rules are: A bit hipster, Scandinavia-meets-Pacific-North-West, wooden tables, exposed brick, white tiles, beards, tattoos… It’s not that difficult. Even fucking KFC has started doing it now. It’s in the marquee in British Bake Off, for fuck’s sake.
Now I’m all for originality and I have as big an aversion to that nebulous group we call hipsters as anyone, but let’s be realistic. We are living in an age with a new, weird kind of fascism: The homogeneity of global, urban consumer taste is all-pervading and to open a shop with a pink and black interior is to advertise your “otherness”, or at least your cluelessness, to the urban customers you wish to entice.
I’m not sure exactly when it set in, but somewhere in this millennium, everybody started thinking alike. The subcultures which had previously defined young people and kept them apart from their elders subsided. Vintage clothing further blurred the generational gaps. Here’s a disturbing fact: A 16-year-old’s record collection now contains 40% of the same tracks as a 60-year-old’s.
Meanwhile, at the other end of the scale, the last of the proper grannies died: Those ladies who wore nylon dresses, ate salad cream and disapproved of ‘living in sin’ and ‘the gays’ were no more. In a recent EU survey, 99% of Britons said they wouldn’t mind if a gay couple moved in next door. Europe-wide, this figure is well over 90%.
In urban areas in the Global South, western liberal values like gay rights, marriage for love and women’s rights are in the ascendency, thus breaking down the cultural peculiarities which made the world a much more diverse place twenty or even ten years ago. Meanwhile, global super-brands from Apple to Beyonce stalk the earth for new markets, sucking more and more consumers inexorably into their crowd-pleasing thrall.
In the age of big data, governments and corporations are increasingly able to design according to the wishes or predispositions of the crowd. “Crowdshaping” involves using personal data drawn from the people inside a defined physical area to shape and reshape their experience. For example, town planners make traffic lights which change according to real time traffic data, or DJs play songs taken from the audience’s home computer playlists.
Which is to say that the present and future of our society is a tyranny of the majority. It is a society where we are closely monitored, and everybody thinks and acts alike. Meanwhile, Germany dominates Europe economically and Scandinavian aesthetics rules culturally. Sounds rather like the Third Reich. But with hipsters.
Which kind of makes me want to hang out in the ice-cream shop just on principle. But I bet they don’t even have fucking WIFI.
For the last few years, I’ve kind of enjoyed watching with bemusement as the kids of today re-live the 90s. It’s sort of like being in a fairground hall of mirrors, where you can recognise the original image, but it’s been hideously deformed. All the while, Corona’s “Rhythm of The Night” plays in the background.
So far as I can tell, there are three main looks in the 90s revival.
1. The first is the one I call: ‘Oh My Eyes’
I honestly don’t know if it’s meant to be ironic or not. It’s stuff like salmon pink shiny shirts with african patterns, pastel shellsuits or anything that would have been described as “Jazzy” by your parents.
When they bought it you as a Christmas present. Which was then hidden down the back of your wardrobe and never worn in public. Until 2011, when it ended up in a vintage shop and on sale for £75.
2. The second is what they’re calling ‘Grunge’. But is really like Blossom. If Blossom was a slutty Goth.
3. …and finally, is the look I’m going to call ‘Crystal Peaks’.
Crystal Peaks was a shopping mall built near my house whose sole purpose was to introduce consumer debt into the former coalfields of South Yorkshire. The people who shopped there looked like this. They also wore Kappa trackie bottoms with press studs. And Naff Co 54 jackets from the market. Which are now 20 quid on Ebay. I shit you not.
So, that’s it, guys.
We were totally wrong about the 90s. We thought Barbie Girl and Mr Vain were shit, but it turns out they were great. Tricky, Jeff Mills, The Pixies and Radiohead simply will not stand the test of time compared to the likes of Dr Alban and Apache Indian.
While we wistfully imagined ourselves singing timeless classics like Wonderwall or End of a Century in 20 years’ time, we had no idea that singing Here Comes The Hotstepper whilst wearing Kappa was where it would be at.
How foolish we were to watch Twin Peaks, when the true pinnacle of popular culture was in fact Saved By The Bell.
Luckily, it’s not too late for us to do the 90s the right way: The way we should have done it. Just need to head down the vintage store for a velvet dress, crop top and choker combo. And a Sabrina The Teenage Witch box set from HMV.
There is barely any photographic evidence of the 90s the first time round, anyway, so the 90s version 2.0 is going to be the one we remember, let’s face it.
Doing stuff ‘before it was cool’ is – generally speaking – a sound principle. Being that it might include such coups as seeing Blondie at CBGBs, or, I dunno, buying that JK Galbraith book before everyone knew it was JK Rowling, that sort of thing. But living in East London ten years ago? Please. This is not something to be proud of. It was flippin’ awful.
There was nothing trendy about living amongst dirty chicken emporiums, crackpot evangelical churches, unlit streets of bleak empty warehousing, derelict bombed-out wasteground (and some council estates you wished the Luftwaffe would return for), Pat Butcher lookalikes, Eels, liqour sauce, stabby pubs, handy shops where you could buy wigs and transfer money abroad all in one place, prozzies, squatters with rotweillers, Mitchell Brothers lookalikes and an overground train service that ran every other Tuesday, weather permitting.
Those were the days. The good old days before the overground when you had to spend three hours getting to Clissold Park only to find you were 10 years too early and were then unceremoniously lynched by 13 year-olds in Kappa.
“Oh, but what about gentrification? I was a ‘real’ person who had no money and had to live here. I’m not gamourising it. I’m legit”. Oh, congratulations. Here – have a medal. It’s from the people of Glasgow congratulating you on your working class credentials. I hear there’s a plaque with your name on it in the Miner’s Welfare in Merthyr Tydfil now, too.
Let’s not forget: You weren’t born East. If you’d have been born there, you’d be now residing in Chingford, topping up your perma-tan, glad to be finally rid of the life-sucking hell-hole once and for all instead of cycling round Stokey complaining about peak beard.
Someone on teh internet once said that ‘Dubstep sounds like robots having sex’. There was a time when that would have been a great thing. We could have worn a tinfoil space outfit from Cyberdog and been all over that robot sex vibe. How times have changed. Nowadays, the idea of ‘quality’ in Dance music has shifted to the warm, classic-sounding stuff: Deep House, New York Disco, Ska, Rock n Roll, Golden Era Hip Hop, anything with analog synths, anything with 909s… All that EDM and Brostep rubbish sounds, well, rubbish. What happened?
Up until a couple of years ago, Dance music only ever looked forward. The rate of progression from Rap to House to Rave to Hardcore to Jungle to DnB took place over the course of just 10 short years (roughly speaking, 1986-1996). Top DJs were expected to play all the latest releases and a track would be jettisoned from your record bag after 18 months, regardless of how good it was. White labels, dubplates and pirate radio all contributed in their own way to the vertiginous turnover of sonic palates, pushing music faster, harder, further. Dance music was the sound of the future and it left most Rock music light years behind in terms of innovation and originality. I remember DJing in the early 2000s and listening to old House and Hardcore records with their ‘primitive’ 909 beats and thinking how dated and badly produced they sounded. Those same records are now the ones we eulogize about with misty-eyed nostalgia. The futuristic robot music of Skrillex or Knife Party just sounds like some kind of aural discharge. The future is over.
The reason we hate EDM is that we are now living in the end times. We are coming to the end of Western civilization. Although the current economic recession appears to be lifting – through such ugly and desperate measures as fracking and selling off the NHS – we are surely witnessing the last death throws of the Anglo-saxon empire. As Russia comes knocking at Europe’s door once again and Latin Americans catch tantalizing glimpses of life beyond America’s stranglehold, it’s fair to say we are entering a new age. It is no surprise, then, that we are also caught up in a collective cultural nostalgia trip.
The warm, cosy world of the 20th Century is a far safer place for us to abide than a 21st Century where China holds the cards and hoverboards are conspicuous only by their absence. It is also no surprise, that the only music ‘we’ judge to be worthy is the good old classic-sounding stuff. The new breed of American Dubstep with its hyper-wobble distorted basslines or glitzy EDM with its catchy choruses and hands-in-the-air Euphoria are deemed to be beyond the pale.
We have fallen out of love with the future, because we know deep down that we do not own the future any more. Is this something to be pessimistic about? Hell no! Just as in 1453, as Constantinople fell and Christendom lay in tatters, Italy looked inwards and backwards and came up with the Renaissance, it might be that we need a deep and long recession to remind us of what’s important in life. It’s probably time for the West to take a rest. Once the fracked oil has been bled dry and the locusts have moved on to India or China, maybe we will finally be left in peace to build a sustainable future where we don’t have to keep running blindly forwards in the name of progress. If Skrillex is the future, isn’t it better to stand still? I for one would rather stick on a shellac, pour myself a martini with an olive in it, and get back to the sewing. As long as I can keep my iphone.
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I’m probably not the first person to point out that we have invented the most powerful mechanism for human interaction and cooperation ever conceived, yet use it to share pictures of kittens. In the spirit of Buzzfeed, Upworthy et al, I will give this article a ridiculously over-egged headline and a picture of a sloth doing something cute, but if you want to understand my drift, you might have to actually be bothered to read a few hundred words. Sorry about that.
I awoke this morning to a Buzzfeed article about an artist called Lindsay Bottos. To cut a long story short, Lindsay found herself at the brunt of cyberbullying for no other reason than being a relatively attractive woman with a Tumblr. I’m sure that many commentators’ angle on this story will be the failure of feminism: “The male gaze”, that sort of thing. However, there is an underlying tendency behind this whole issue which is, if anything, far more disturbing/interesting in my eyes. When people watched TV, it was called the ‘three-second zapping culture’.
Now we’re in the digital age, it’s this same zapping culture which draws us to Buzzfeed, Tumblr and the rest. If this new century can be characterised by anything, it is the way that visual culture has replaced the written word, and that information is becoming ever more bite-sized. Why watch a 2-hour film when you can watch a one-hour episode of Breaking Bad? Why read an essay about the meaning of art when you can see the idea expressed on canvas? Why read a cookery book when you can watch a youtube video instead? There is no doubt that, for good and for bad, all the information in the universe is slowly being condensed and filtered into manageable chunks. These bitesize pieces are easier to digest and help us to achieve more as human beings. But the flipside of all this is that we are becoming really sucky at thinking for ourselves, of holding complicated ideas in our heads and of seeing things in ways other than black and white.
To take an arbitrary example, let’s look at internet memes. They are funny because they are able to sum up a ‘type of person’ or a ‘familiar situation’ so well. They play into the same human weakness; the need to stereotype, to condense information, to create a shorthand, to distill a thought to its essence. They are also incredibly cruel for the person who’s been memed: They have had their individuality erased and whatever intentions they had in striking that pose have been completely airbrushed from history. They have become nothing more than a hideous caricature, a shorthand for an idea. Sucks to be them. But what is a selfie, but the creation of one’s own meme about oneself? Every selfie is in all circumstances the same meme: I think I’m hot. Just as College Liberal might not even hold liberal views, you might not think you’re hot. But you don’t control your message. The public controls it. They think that all selfies are the “I think I’m hot” meme. Any reaction to your selfie is a reaction to “I think I’m hot” not to you as a person. Don’t take it personally.
In a digital-visual world, there is no room for ambiguity, the marginal, the esoteric. The children of tomorrow will not memorise Shakespeare’s sonnets or Sanskrit grammar. They will not follow trains of argument with logical rigour. They won’t understand the irony of Buzzfeed – the website that specialises in short lists – decrying people who judge artists based on shallow first impressions.
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Sometimes it feels like a day doesn’t go by when my Facebook newsfeed doesn’t contain the words “When are the new Public Enemy/Sex Pistols/Rage Against The Machine going to appear? We need music with a message instead of all this meaningless pop crap…”… I find this sentiment so quaint. It’s almost cute to think that there are some people for whom The Pirate Bay never happened.
If Punk Rock taught us anything, it’s that people love to feel rebellious and will pay good money for ripped jeans, albums about fighting the power, Che Guevara posters and the $375 Urban Outfitters jacket pictured above. Teenagers love to consume the ideology of rebellion. After all, it’s so much easier than actually Fighting the Power. Remember in Withnail and I when the drug dealer complains that they’re selling Hippy wigs in Woolworths? It’s what they used to call recuperation in the olden days of Socialist yore. Or, as the Clash so elequently put it, turning rebellion into money.
What – let’s call him ‘Facebook Guy’ – doesn’t realise is that sitting on your arse listening to Billy Bragg is no more subversive than sitting on your arse listening to Justin Bieber. Whether it be Britney Spears or Bob Seeger, any major label record purchase is essentially an act of fellatio on a huge corporate penis. Facebook Guy thinks he’s rebelling by listening to Public Enemy, but he’s really sucking Vivendi Universal Music Group dick.
At the end of the day, Bob Dylan didn’t end the Vietnam war any more than The Hoff brought down the Berlin wall. The Economic machinations of the Geopolitical power nexus massively dwarf any ideological merit which accrues through someone – even the Lennons and Strummers of this world – writing a pop song.
If, like Facebook Guy, you are waiting for the next Public Enemy, I think I may have found them. It’s YOU. You can share, bootleg, steal, lend, swop, blog, give away, mashup and remix music. Become a producer instead of a consumer… (and you don’t even need to leave your armchair!). But if you can’t be arsed, don’t worry. Some kid from Hackney with Fruity Loops and a Twitter account is doing it right now. Don’t say you weren’t warned.
If Mr Nibblesworth can play ‘Imagine’, so can you.
Wouldn’t it be great to play the piano like this cat? Yep, but in the words of Gordon Gecko: Time is money and life’s too short to smoke bad crack.
Instead of spending 10,000 hours hunched over the ivories, memorising chords, building muscle memory or – worst of all – learning to sight read, you could be chillin’ with your homies, sippin’ gin and juice and partyin’ with dirty naked freaks. Just learn to play one of these songs. It’ll take, like, two days. Promise.
1. Beethoven – Moonlight Sonata
Wow your dinner party guests with this incredibly simple, yet ridiculously effective piece.
Based on simple right-hand arpeggios and two-finger bass chords, this piece can be begun in a day, learned in a week and perfected in a month by any beginner who’s willing to put in the effort. No-one can argue with Beethoven, let’s face it.
In a word: Beautiful.
Skill factor: **
Wow factor: *****
Cheat factor: *****
2. John Lennon – Imagine
In spite of enjoying being photographed in soft focus in empty rooms with huge, white, kitschy pianos, John Lennon was not much of a piano player.
The song is based around long, slow chords of C and F and only includes one black note. If it’s good enough for Mr Nibblesworth…
In a word: Easy peasy. (OK, that’s two words, but never mind.)
Skill factor: *
Wow factor: ***
Cheat factor: ****
3. John Cage – 4’33”
Probably not a good one to bash out at a dinner party, unless your dinner guests are European intellectuals or Zen monks.
Four minutes and thirty three seconds of silence is not the most challenging of pieces to play. In fact, it’s much harder to listen to than to play. This one takes a second to master, but a lifetime to understand.
In a word: Deep.
Skill factor: *
Wow factor: *
Cheat factor: *****