James Brown famously recorded a track entitled Doing It To Death. I discovered this tune as a young man in my twenties (via my younger brother who was a huge JB fan). I loved the attitude that this record suggested, and I felt that it reflected my then hedonistic sentiments entirely. In the midst of sweaty, 1980s dancefloors – and while surrounded by my peers who were also creating intricate physical interpretations of a 4/4 rhythm – I vowed that, like Mr Brown, I too would being doing it until death. The it which I was pledging to do was to dance, to dig music, to be funky. How, I thought then, could life be worth living without the appreciation of funky and soulful music. I reasoned that even if septuagenarian dancing became painful and difficult, I was still going to attempt it – just to show the world that I was still alive.
Press the fast forward button.
It is the digital second decade of the twenty-first century. I still like music. I still dance (pretty well, actually) to soul, funk, techno, hip-hop, indie, latin, dubstep and reggae. I’m in my fifties – so I have less than twenty years to go before I achieve my goal of being able to break out those funky moves in my seventh decade. However, I have suddenly found myself overwhelmed by the sense that this ambition will not be met. In recent weeks, something in my attitude to popular music has changed. I’m unsure as to whether the root cause is to do with the music or to do with me – perhaps it is both. I have decided, I think, that the endpoint of the popular music paradigm has been reached. To reiterate, I am still trying to decide whether that endpoint is in me or in the music. Perhaps this article will help me to tease out exactly what this petit crise artistique is all about. I hope you will indulge me in these musings.
I can point to the moment when the crisis began. I had been to a ropey DJ bar in Sheffield which had a PA system that was far too loud for the small space it was housed in. I experienced tinnitus for a good few days afterwards. I was a little afraid, because my hearing is precious to me and I resolved to reduce my music activities – both as consumer and producer – in the future. I should add at this point that I am an occasional DJ and musician as well as someone who enjoys dancing and listening to recorded and live music.
This decision raised a question – could I live without the music and associated activities which had been a central feature of my artistic and emotional life since my early teenage years? That is, for nigh on the last four decades? After an initial period of horror, I slowly came to the realisation that I could, actually. I realised that for me, popular music – far from still being an artistic catalyst, something that prompted new thoughts and new modus operandi – might have become simply a reflex; a habit practised daily since I was a youth. I stepped out of myself and peered, objectively, into this world of music that I thought was so central to my being, and was struck by a single thought: derivative.
I do not deny that much 20th century popular music was irresistible. It was an artistic maelstrom which changed the lives of many who experienced it. One of its foremost features was the continual innovation and creativity which was one of its defining characteristics. Thus while jazz, blues and country were the initial building blocks, they quickly beget other genres, which beget yet more and so on. Some of these mutations were genuinely radical in both form and in the associated cultures that accompanied them; take but two examples: punk and reggae.
My current problem is that, while I continue to hear a great deal of new music which is amazing and which uplifts, entertains and inspires me, that word keeps returning: derivative. This is because, in my head, popular music has almost become a catalyst for nostalgia. It somehow has become art which works by signposting the days when funk was fresh, or when soul, eighties electro, jazz, punk, swing or rock-a-billy exploded, in their turn, like fireworks in the dark sky of convention. In this new worldview of mine, the experience of popular music today is something akin to pastiche; we’ve seen that firework, that particular explosion before. This I think, explains the reason for my recent surprise when I found myself seriously contemplating a future where popular music and dancing were no longer a central part of my life. It’s old. It was the continual reinvention that made popular music special and which would have left me feeling that I was missing out if it was no longer a part of my life. Now I feel a little bit like: been there, done that.
There is a very valid retort to this. It is exemplified in a polemic that I encountered on Facebook written by a bearded music producer and poet whom I respect and, if truth be told, am a little afraid of. He had obviously read something that was written by an older person who argued, essentially, that modern music was rubbish. The scary beardy one vented his rage (seemingly apropos to nothing) in a Facebook status update. His words were along the lines of: “Stop whinging. You had your time. Let the kids of today have theirs.”
This is an entirely valid point of course. It might be true that kids of today are having equally as much fun with the music of the 2010s as kids of earlier generations had with the late twentieth century genres. If that is the case. I would willingly admit that the issues with popular music which I describe above are personal to me, and most likely age-related. The sermon can therefore end here, and I can retire untroubled to cocoa and sitcoms.
However, I am not wholly convinced that young people today are having an equivalent musical experience to that of their twentieth century peers. The reason why I believe this to be so centres around the idea of novelty that I touched upon earlier. In my view, the key characteristic of the golden age of popular music was innovation. Each successive generation produced a slew of musical innovations which were unique to the period and had not been heard before. Perhaps even more importantly the new generation and target sub-cultures felt that they – in part – owned the new music which they were discovering (partly because they were the finders of it). This constant renewal might have required young people to be authentic in an existential sense; in other words they had to create themselves anew in conjunction with the music. There was no template which they could follow from a previous epoch.
To illustrate this point one need only raise the examples of reggae and its associated Rastafarian culture, and punk rock which also created an equally distinctive culture. There were no templates for either of these forms, either musically or culturally – the young people had to make it up as they went along. It is of course true that the music genres themselves were derived from previous forms (reggae has been said to have been derived from American R&B and Jamaican Mento, and punk is a particularly acid form of rock and roll). However, the creations themselves were brand new. You couldn’t describe reggae as ‘Jamaican R&B’ or punk as ‘nu-rock’. These were new and different things. Rather than being prefixed with nu- or post-*, they are forms which were (and are) best described by their own unique labels: reggae, punk.
(*The sociologist Steve Fuller once tweeted that defining anything as ”post-X‘ means that the new thing has not quite escaped from the influence of X)
I could discuss specific music of today; hip-hop as a continual look-behind to the original 1970s and early 1980s innovators, or gabber as simply a sub-genre of techno. One of the genuinely inventive movements of recent times is noise, but even the most cursory investigation reveals that this form has been screeching away artistically and discordantly behind the scenes for several decades. In most new music now I see only pastiche – of hip-hop, of electro, or punk or country or even folk. There’s little, well, new. I could even describe how some DJs, for example the wonderful Gilles Peterson, jets around the world, digging in ever more obscure crates for something new and innovative, whereas in the past that innovation would land on our laps straight from the nearest ghetto or council estate, or youthful gathering.
In addition, and beyond the music itself, it was the paradigm of popular music that was brand new in the mid and late twentieth century. All of the clichés – for, example ‘sex, drugs & rock and roll’ – sprung from this time. This paradigm, or the way in which popular music is done, has changed very little in the intervening years – additional evidence, I think, of an innovation deficit. A counter-argument could perhaps be made that there are new and recent additions to the pop music paradigm such as the emergence of pop talent via talent shows, but this too is derivative. In the UK we had ‘Opportunity Knocks’ and ‘New Faces’ forty years ago!
Thus, it is existentialism and authenticity that I feel most accurately describes the original power of 20th century popular music. It is that which I feel has been lost and it is this point which enables me to counter the argument that it simply the process of aging which is allowing me to contemplate a life without popular music. I would argue that something else is occurring at the intersection of me, and the music that I am listening to.The great thing about the golden age of 20th century music was its ability to rip up the template and start again. It is why I am beginning to view my decision to kick my forty year popular music habit as a highly positive and authentic thing; a strong existential choice if you like. I see myself as the true heir to the punks who stuck two fingers up to Bill Grundy and the lumbering music establishment of the time.
In sum I think that, far from this being the withering of an aged music lover and dancer, not doing it to death – or my rejection of popular music – is possibly one of the most radical and genuine things that I could do at this particular point in time.